Key Additions: Ella Eastin (CA – Anything), Kim Williams (WA – IM/Breast), Leah Stevens (KY – Free/IM), Brickelle Bro (CO – Free), Kaitlyn Albertoli (CA – Free)
The Stanford Cardinal rocked their NCAA meet last year, and while they couldn’t top Cal or Georgia in the team standings, they walked away with new NCAA, American, and U.S. Open records in the 400 medley relay, 400 free relay, and the 100 free courtesy of Simone Manuel.
Their relay success also extended to their other relays– they were a very close 2nd in the 200 free relay and a (relatively) close 2nd in the 800 free relay. In the 200 medley relay, some key swaps were made from prelims to finals after Stanford missed out on the A final. The Cardinal erupted for a 1:35.10 nevertheless, which would’ve beat out Cal for the overall title in the A final.
Manuel was their big points leader, winning the 50 and 100 free and finishing 2nd behind Missy Franklin in the 200 free, showing incredible endurance and finishing over a full second ahead of the next-best competitor.
The next best competitor happened to be 2015 junior Lia Neal, who also touched right behind Manuel in the 100 free. Neal provided a rock-solid anchor leg on the 200 medley, the only Manuel-less relay, and scored 33 big points on her own.
The name of the game for Stanford last year was youth. Manuel was a double NCAA champion in her freshman year, while the freshman trio of Janet Hu, Lindsey Engel, and Ally Howe combined for 25 points in sprint fly and back events. All of the free relays were made up of exclusively underclassmen, and their only upperclassmen on relays were breaststrokers Katie Olsen and Sarah Haase.
Haase, a 2015 senior, took home the 100 breast title last year and will look to defend that this year. Olsen scored in the B final of the 100 breast and then uncorked a 2:07.06 in the 200 breast finals to grab 3rd overall.
The Cardinal had their sprint game down to near perfection, but had large holes in the distance events. They had zero NCAA scorers in the 200 back, 200 IM, 400 IM, 500 free, and 1650 free, something that will likely change with this year’s freshman class.
ANOTHER YOUTH MOVEMENT
Greg Meehan and co.’s recruiting efforts have been extraordinary for the program in recent years especially, and this freshman class looks ready to make a huge impact in its debut season with the Cardinal.
Kim Williams and Leah Stevens will be a shot in the arm long overdue for the Stanford IM group; Williams is within striking distance of minor NCAA scoring in the 200 and 400 IM, while Stevens is a touch closer to scoring in the 400 IM. Stevens is also a distance freestyler– if she can get back to the 16:07 she swam in 2012, she could score in the mile at NCAAs.
If Williams and Stevens are a shot in the arm for Stanford, Ella Eastin is probably worth two shots just on her own. You’d be hard-pressed to argue that Eastin has a “weakness”; the SOCAL Aquatics stud has incredible and rare versatility. Her “worst” (it pains me to say worst with Eastin) stroke is freestyle, where she’s been 49.19, 1:47.65, and 4:44.47 across the 100-500. Yeah.
Eastin would’ve finished 3rd in the 200 IM, 5th in the 200 fly, and 6th in the 400 IM at last year’s NCAAs. The former junior world record-holder has been on the national radar for years, and she will be a force to be reckoned with come NCAAs this year.
Kaitlyn Albertoli is a sprint free talent who could work her way onto the sprint free relays, and she will help fill the hole left behind by Manuel. Don’t count Albertoli out as just a splash-n-dasher– she’s been 1:47.47 in the 200 free, making her one of many contenders to make that 800 free relay.
Finally, the Cardinal adds S8 Paralympian Brickelle Bro to their roster this season. Bro broke American records in both the 1000 and 1650 free, the 1000 record coming as a split in her mile swim at the Cheyenne Mt. Short Course Open in December of 2014. While her 1000 record has since been broken, she lowered the mile record once more in March of this year.
NEAL TO LEAD RELAYS TO BATTLE
Junior Lia Neal has been tested before. The 2012 Olympic bronze medalist on the American 4×100 free relay swam admirably at NCAAs last season, touching 2nd in the 100 free and 3rd in the 200 free. More importantly, though, was her presence on Stanford’s relays.
While Manuel was blasting 45’s in the 100 free and wrecking opponents left and right, Neal provided consistent speed to give complementary support to Manuel as Stanford would re-write the record books on multiple occasions.
This year, Neal will be relied upon to anchor most of the Cardinal’s relays (and certainly their medleys) as the most experienced and dependable freestyler on the deep roster. Lost in Manuel’s amazing performances were swims like Neal’s 46.84 lead off in the 400 free relay (which almost edged out Missy Franklin) as well as her 1:42.89 800 free relay lead off and twin 21.3’s on the sprint relays.
THE CARDINAL’S LOOKING WELL-ROUNDED
Mentioned earlier were the holes in Stanford’s otherwise secure lineup last year. The freshmen class (particularly Eastin, Williams, and Stevens) is going to help stabilize the distance free, IM, and 200’s of stroke groups in a big way.
What these three freshmen (save for Eastin) don’t bring right away is immediate relay shoring up. Albertoli will probably find herself on sprint free relays, but Williams and Stevens don’t have the speed to help out on Stanford’s deadly relays.
Luckily for the Cardinal, though, the name of the game is youth. The sophomore class is loaded, and the Hu, Howe, and Engel trio will be back in full force. The backstroke/butterfly armory provided by these three is hard to defend against, and they should contribute individually again after putting up a solid chunk of Stanford’s individual points last year.
OLSEN’S GONE, BUT BREASTSTROKE CORE’S STILL STRONG
The Cardinal will miss Katie Olsen, who did her part individually and on the 400 medley relay last season.
Fortunately, Sarah Haase has really come into her own. She rose to the occasion last year at NCAAs, torching the field on her way to the national title in the 100 breast (58.32) after setting the pool record in prelims. Only UVA’s Laura Simon, who will be splitting her focus between NCAA’s and making Germany’s Olympic team this season, returns from last year’s A final to challenge Haase. This won’t be an easy victory for Haase, per sé, but she will likely find herself raking in points at the top of the field in this event.
Haase missed out on the 200 breast finals by two spots last year, but could break through this season to add some minor points in that event. Her sprinting really came to life last year– she was over eight tenths quicker than Olsen’s prelims swim in the 200 medley relay, splitting a 26.55 that tied Lousville’s Andee Cottrell for the 2nd fastest split in finals.
The Cardinal also brings back sophomore Heidi Poppe, who was 17th in the 100 and 36th in the 200 last year. In addition to Poppe, freshmen Stevens and Williams show promise in the breaststrokes (primarily the 200).
OTHER KEY TEAM MEMBERS
- 2015 juniors Grace Carlson and Nicole Stafford made appearances on the 800 free relay last year, with Stafford pulling off a 1:44.18 anchor that wildly improved upon her 1:45.98 season best from a flat start. Carlson, meanwhile, will be one of the Cardinal’s top IMers/backstrokers this season as well.
- Allison Brown was the fastest 500 and 1650 freestyler last season, and will lead the Cardinal distance group once more in her senior year. She only missed out on finals in the 500 free by about two seconds, and could break through to give the Cardinal some points in one of their weaker events.
- Alex Clay is the defending Pac-12 Champion in 3-meter diving– she also finished 5th in the 1-meter at that meet. She’ll pick up a lot of the slack left behind by Kassidy Cook, who is red-shirting this season to focus on Rio.
Manuel and Cook’s redshirts definitely hurt the Cardinal. The two made up 90 of Stanford’s 197 individual points at NCAA’s last year, and Manuel pushed their relays from outstanding to elite.
Nevertheless, Stanford returns all other NCAA scorers save for Katie Olsen, whose departure will be softened by Haase’s strong presence this year and the possible break through from Poppe, Williams, or Stevens.
Stanford’s freshman class will look to impress again, and Eastin’s potential to score in A finals for all three of her individual events will definitely make up a big portion of the points left behind by Manuel. Eastin and Neal are set to be the team leaders in regards to NCAA points, while a huge supporting cast which has been bolstered by talented freshmen will keep the relays tenacious and foster more individual scoring.
The stars are aligned, and Stanford could bring home more than a couple individual NCAA titles this season. Their year will be defined by the returning NCAA team members’ ability to repeat and/or improve upon their success last year and their rookies’ ability to live up to the hype.