We’ll be previewing the top 12 men’s and women’s programs from the 2017 NCAA Championships – stay tuned to our College Swimming Previews channel to catch all 24. Can’t get enough college swimming news? Check out the College Preview issue of SwimSwam Magazine for some inside looks at the life of a college swimmer as told by college swimmers themselves, plus full-length profiles of a few of college swimming’s biggest names, including our cover athlete, Simone Manuel.
#1 Stanford Cardinal
Key Losses: Lia Neal (31 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), Nicole Stafford (1 NCAA point)
Key Additions: #4 Brooke Forde (KY – IM/everything), #6 Lauren Pitzer (TX – free), #8 Hannah Kukurugya (IN – fly), #10 Grace Zhao (CA – breast), #12 Ashley Volpenhein (OH – sprint free), Lauren Green (CA – free/fly), Katie Glavinovich (CA – free/IM)
We’ve tightened up our criteria from last year, where our first stab at a letter grading system got hit by a little bit of classic grade inflation. Again, bear in mind that all of these grades are projections more than 6 months out – and as none of us has a working crystal ball, these projections are very subjective and very likely to change over the course of the season. Disagreeing with specific grades is completely acceptable; furiously lashing out at a writer, commenter or specific athlete is not.
- A = projected to score significant (10+) NCAA points per event
- B = projected to score some (3-10) NCAA points per event
- C = projected on the bubble to score likely only a few (1-2) or no NCAA points per event
- D = projected to score no NCAA points
The 2017 Stanford team was historically good, winning the NCAA title by 160.5 points, the biggest margin at a women’s NCAA Championship since 2003.
The scary part: that team was powered mainly by its underclassmen, with more than two thirds of the team’s individual points coming from its freshman and sophomore classes. Here’s a breakdown of the Stanford NCAA team, which qualified an NCAA-high 16 athletes:
Individual Points, 2017 NCAA Championships, Stanford Cardinal
|Class||NCAA Entrants||NCAA Scorers||NCAA Points||%|
Add to that three national relay titles, and two more top-3 relay finishes and Stanford scored 526.5 points. That was led by a trio that finished among the top individual scorers of all teams: Ella Eastin (57 individual points), Katie Ledecky (58.5 individual points) and Simone Manuel (56 individual points). All three return – Eastin and Manuel as juniors and Ledecky as a sophomore.
Junior duo Ally Howe and Janet Hu both made big contributions, both individually and on relays. Howe broke a revered American record in the 100 back at Pac-12s, though she fell off a bit and finished 4th in that event at NCAAs. Another impact junior was Kassidy Cook, who scored 27 diving points.
Stanford got a pretty good return out of its highly-touted freshman class, with potential for much more moving forward. Distance swimmer Megan Byrnes was 3rd in the NCAA in the mile and scored 25 points. Katie Drabot, Allie Szekely and Kim Williams all scored, and NCAA invitees Erin Voss and Haley Farnsworth should be in the mix to score this year.
Rounding out the NCAA scorers was sophomore Leah Stevens, who earned 21 points and was 4th in the mile.
SPRINT FREE: A
A sprint group with Simone Manuel isn’t capable of getting less than an A in this grading system. Manuel is widely favored to defend her 50 and 100 free titles nationally, especially coming off a summer in which she defended her Olympic gold medal in the 100 meter free at the 2017 World Championships.
And Manuel is a relay weapon of the highest order. She’s got the speed to potentially lead off any of the free relays in 20-point/45-point/1:40-point, and with a flying start could theoretically be 44 and 1:39 in the two longer distances. Manuel has such a great flat start that she’s typically been used on leadoffs, though that was always with the clutch Lia Neal around to anchor.
With Neal graduated, the depth behind Manuel in the pure sprints is actually a little thin. Manuel and Neal were the only two NCAA entrants for Stanford last year in the 50 and 100 free, and the incoming freshman class is mostly centered on some longer distances.
However, when you get a recruiting class as loaded as Stanford’s, there are bound to be a few contributors in every discipline. Ashley Volpenhein is one of the premiere sprinters in the class, with times of 22.3 and 48.9 that put her within striking range of a few NCAA points. California product Lauren Green is 22.4/49.4 and could contribute with some development.
Regardless of pure sprint depth, the free relays are still in great shape with fly/back types Ally Howe and Janet Hu able to drop 21-second splits and Katie Ledecky and Hu able to pinch-hit some 47s on the final relay.
The 800 free relay loses Neal but is still loaded up with Manuel, Ledecky and Eastin, with the possible addition of Katie Drabot (lifetime-best 1:43.7) or freshman Brooke Forde (lifetime-best 1:44.6).
DISTANCE FREE: A+
It was a little overlooked in the flood of Stanford accolades last year, but the addition of Katie Ledecky to the distance group seemed to yield more than just points for Stanford. The rest of its distance corps really stepped up their games as well – whether that’s a product of training with Ledecky (can anyone really train ‘with’ Ledecky unless the definition of ‘with’ is expanded to include ‘two laps behind’?), or merely an influx of high-level distance talents who want to train with the distance queen of the day is hard to say.
What is clear, though, is that Stanford has the three fastest returning milers in the NCAA. Ledecky, of course, is a monster. Unless she gets bored and switches to the 100 free for a challenge, Ledecky should win this race by 20 seconds. Her freshman teammate Megan Byrnes was third last year (15:50) and Leah Stevens was fourth (15:52). And runner-up Leah Smith has graduated from Virginia.
That’s not to Say the Stanford trio is guaranteed a 1-2-3 punch. There are some tough milers coming in in this freshman class (Sierra Schmidt is 15:57 and a number of girls have been in the low 16 minutes). But Stanford has a real shot at a sweep, especially considering all three are still very young.
The 500 is similarly tough. Ledecky is all but unbeatable. Byrnes was 9th last year in 4:37, Stevens 4:39 for 11th. And the Cardinal freshman class is also strong here: Brooke Forde has been 4:39, though she’s got lots of other events to choose from. And Lauren Pitzer comes in with a 4:42.
The IMs are buoyed by Eastin, who should be in NCAA title contention in both distances. The American record-holder in the 400, Eastin is coming off a summer that saw great improvements (though was marred by a controversial DQ on a rule that has since been changed). Katinka Hosszu’s U.S. Open and NCAA records could be in Eastin’s sights this year, as she was only about a second off as a sophomore.
Ally Howe and Allie Szekely scored in the B finals of the 200 IM and 400 IM, respectively, last year, and should be in line to do so again. And the IM events are the most likely landing spot for star freshman Brooke Forde, who is probably the best in her class now, though we had her ranked #2 when recruiting opened more than a year ago.
Forde has been 4:02 in the 400 IM – good enough for 5th place at the 2017 NCAA meet – as well as 1:55.5 in the 200 IM. Forde could easily swap the 200 IM for 500 free or the 400 IM for the 200 free, but her versatility seems perfect to train in as the heir-apparent to Eastin in the IMs.
Kim Williams was a Pac-12 A finalist in the 200 IM last year, though she scratched out of the race at NCAAs. She was forced to split her focus a bit last year, serving as the breaststroker on both medley relays, and she scored her individual NCAA points in the 200 breast. Williams has potential to be a great IMer, but it’s probably safer to project her back into the breaststrokes this year, as it’s still the one major hole in Stanford’s army.
Distance swimmer Leah Stevens is also a pretty good 400 IMer (4:09.2) as her tertiary event. And if we’re bringing up distance swimmers, there’s always the spectre of Ledecky jumping into the 400 IM instead of the 200 free. Though that’s mostly been a pipe dream in years past, Ledecky did go an American-record 3:57.6 and win the Pac-12 title last year before returning to the 200 for NCAAs.
The sprint fly is the territory of Janet Hu, who took 6th at NCAAs last year in a senior-heavy field. With 4 of the top 8 graduated, Hu could be in the hunt for a national title, and could be challenging the 50-second barrier with a good year.
Hu doesn’t swim the 200, but Ella Eastin does, and she won the NCAA title last year. The versatile Eastin could also try to fill Stanford’s breaststroking hole with a 200 breast entry, but it’s hard to pass up a returning national champ, especially after she won by a full second in 2017.
Lindsey Engel was the other NCAA entrant in both races, though she didn’t have a great NCAA meet. She’s been 51.7 in the 100, which is probably good enough for a B final spot if she can be at her best at NCAAs. She struggled in the 200 last year, failing to come within a second of her lifetime-best 1:54.1 from 2016. Engel’s got potential for an A final swim there, though, if she can regain her form as a senior.
Luckily, Hannah Kukurugya is one of the best of a strong freshman 200 fly class nationally. Her 1:55.6 would have put her just outside of scoring range last year, and she can also go 53.0 in the 100. And Lauren Green also brings in a 52.7 in the 100 and could eventually be in the mix for the sprintier medley relay legs.
Hu and Ally Howe make a dynamic duo here. Both were in the A final of the 100 last year. Howe could be arguably the favorite this year as the American record-holder (49.69), but defending champ Kathleen Baker of Cal isn’t far off that mark. Hu has been as fast as 50.29 in the event and could also join the sub-50 club.
Both women were better at Pac-12s than NCAAs last year. There shouldn’t be much reason for them to put a big focus on the conference level this year (unless their NCAA invite status is still uncertain by that point), though that also should have been the case last year – that’ll be a trend worth watching come post-season.
Hu’s best 200 back time would have gotten her 3rd at NCAAs last year; as it was, she finished 15th. Howe had been fast enough to be 10th, but she missed scoring in 23rd. That’s the only reason for the minus on this grade – if both swim to their potential at nationals as seniors, the backstrokes will be a massive points haul for the Cardinal.
And we haven’t even mentioned Allie Szekely and Erin Voss, both of whom competed at NCAAs last year as freshmen. Voss was a lifetime-best 53.3 in the 100, but still a ways out from scoring. Her 200 has the ability to be in the championship final, but hasn’t been the same since a 1:51.9 in 2014. (She was 1:53.2 last year, her best time since that 2014 meet).
Formerly a breaststroker, Szekely has become more of an IM/backstroke type for Stanford. She’s unlikely to swim the 100 (where she’s been 53.3) as it conflicts with the 400 IM, but if she can equal her Pac-12 time of 1:51.7 at NCAAs, she’s another very likely point-scorer.
Stanford’s Achilles’ Heel at the moment is breaststroke. The team was forced to convert talented IMer Kim Williams into a full-time breaststroker last year, and to her credit, she did score NCAA points with a 2:08.8 in the 200 breast. That was a drop of 2.5 seconds from her high-school best.
The issue is in the sprints, where the more endurance-based Williams hasn’t yet cracked a minute. Former big-name recruit Heidi Poppe has regressed ever since going 59.2 at a midseason invite during her freshman year in 2014, and at this point she’s unlikely to contribute at NCAAs.
Though Stanford didn’t get either of the two big breaststrokers in this recruiting class, they did get local product Grace Zhao, who should slot in as a solid breaststroke prospect. Zhao’s best event is also the 200, where she’s been 2:09.2 – an NCAA scoring-level time. She’s been 1:00.5 in the 100, but Stanford will need to get her under a minute in a hurry if it wants to boost its medley relays.
Williams came through clutch on the 400 medley relay at NCAAs. Her split was listed at 58.5, but that would outpace her best individual swim by 1.5 seconds. More likely is a touchpad error, as Howe’s backstroke was listed at just 51.4. But either way, that split for Williams was at the upper end of her range, and Stanford is relying on another outlier swim like that (coupled last year with a Cal DQ) if this relay wants to repeat its title. That was apparent on the 200 medley, where the Card was outsplit by a half-second on breaststroke to lose the relay despite 22.7/20.9 splits on the back end.
The intriguing part about Zhao is that, while her 200 breast is currently better than her 100, her third-best event is the 50 free (22.7), which might suggest she’s got the fast-twitch muscles in place to swim a strong 50 split.
This Stanford team is loaded, and should be considered the heavy favorites to run away with the NCAA title again this year. The freshman class is more than good enough to replace Lia Neal’s 31 points, though her relay contributions and overall leadership are still big losses.
The Eastin-Ledecky-Manuel trio is easily the best Big Three in any NCAA swim team at the moment, and there’s real potential for them to combine for up to 8 individual NCAA titles this year. Freestyle points alone should put Stanford well ahead of the pack, and the next step for this team might be attempting to challenge the highest point-scoring teams in women’s NCAA history. Here’s the top overall scores, per our research:
- 1991 Texas Longhorns – 746
- 1992 Stanford Cardinal – 735.5
- 1988 Texas Longhorns – 661
- 1993 Stanford Cardinal – 649.5
- 1987 Texas Longhorns – 648.5
- 1985 Texas Longhorns – 643
- 1986 Texas Longhorns – 633
- 1990 Texas Longhorns – 632
- 1989 Stanford Cardinal – 610.5
- 2005 Georgia Bulldogs – 609.5
As the sport of women’s swimming in the NCAA has expanded, winning scores have gotten lower. Here’s the top scores since the year 2000:
- 2005 Georgia Bulldogs – 609.5
- 2004 Auburn Tigers – 569
- 2003 Auburn Tigers – 536
- 2007 Auburn Tigers – 535
- 2014 Georgia Bulldogs – 528
- 2017 Stanford Cardinal – 526.5
- 2006 Auburn Tigers – 518.5
- 2015 California Golden Bears – 513
- 2000 Georgia Bulldogs – 490.5
- 2008 Arizona Wildcats – 484
The biggest intrigue might be relay lineups, with coach Greg Meehan having a wealth of options. Manuel, in particular, could swim any of the five relays. She’s a lock for the 200 and 400 frees, and seems pretty likely to swim the 800 free if Stanford wants to challenge its own American record. That means the sprint depth will have to come around to find an anchor for the medley relay that doesn’t use Manuel. (Katie Ledecky for the 400 medley, anyone???).
Keep an eye on the freshman and sophomore classes, which combine for an absurd amount of talent, some of it seemingly on the cusp of a breakout. While the team this year is strong enough to win without a big contribution from the young classes, how they fare this year will go a long way in determining just how likely Stanford is to put together a multi-year dynasty of NCAA titles.