By Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online Sports
When last season's NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships wrapped up, Stanford women's coach Lea Maurer was a bit shocked that her team had finished second to champion Florida by a mere 2 1/2 points.
"I think it was surprising to be second," she said at the time, "but I was aware we were inches from first and inches from third or fourth. I think it was an all-around team effort and one that I was proud of and, hopefully, one we can build upon."
Evidently, the Stanford women have done a good construction job this season. After a one-loss dual-meet season, during which the team was ranked No. 1 in the nation, the Cardinal successfully defended its Pac-10 title for the first time since 2004-05.
This week, Stanford will take a No. 3 national ranking (trailing No. 1 Georgia and No. 2 Cal) into the 2011 NCAA Championships that begin Thursday in Austin, Texas. The Cardinal will be looking for its first national crown since 1998 and, equally important, the school's first NCAA title of the 2010-11 school year.
For 33 straight years, Stanford has won at least one NCAA title. The school has 99, second all-time to UCLA, and the next one will be the historic No. 100.
The Cardinal women, however, are not favored to be the history makers.
"We are re-inventing the wheel a bit, graduating a great senior class and welcoming a large freshman class (ranked No. 1 nationally)," Maurer said before the season began.
Stanford, of course, lost All-Americans and Olympians Julie Smit and Elaine Breeden to graduation, two of the best swimmers in program history. Smit swept the 200 IM and 400 IM titles last season and swam on the winning 400 free relay team while Breeden took the 100 and 200 flys.
While Stanford doesn't have that kind of star power this week, Maurer does have plenty of depth and talent to help make up for the big points that Smit and Breeden captured.
The experience comes from seniors Kelsey Ditto, Elizabeth Smith and Kate Dwelley while the standout freshman class is led by Maya DiRado, Andi Taylor and Felicia Lee. Other key members include juniors Sam Woodward and Betsy Webb plus sophomore Andi Murez. Senior diver Meg Hostage and freshman Stephanie Phipps also will be counted upon for some points.
Stanford won five titles and was second another five times while winning the Pac-10 title, but isn't favored in any event at NCAAs. DiRado may have the best opportunities in the 200 IM and 400 IM, where she is ranked No. 4 and No. 3, respectively. She is also ranked fifth in the 200 back.
DiRado's time of 1:52.04 in the 200 back ranks second to Smit on Stanford's all-time list. DiRado's 200 IM best of 1:55.11 ranks No. 3 all-time while her 4:02.48 in the 400 IM also ranks No. 3, right behind Smit and fellow Olympian Summer Sanders. DiRado moved ahead of Sanders in the 200 IM.
Dwelley is another high on Stanford's all-time list. She is tied for third in the 50 free, with her 22.04 from this season matching the time that Cal's Liv Jensen (from Palo Alto High) swam to win last year's NCAA meet. Dwelley is also No. 2 all-time in the 100 free (47.50) and is the school recordholder in the 200 free (1:43.14). Dwelley's 100 and 200 times from 2009 would have won NCAA titles last year.
Dwelley, who finished fifth in the 200 free and seventh in the 100 free last season, is also a key relay member, along with Woodward, Webb and Murez. Stanford is ranked among the top 10 in three of the relays this week. The Cardinal won one relay in 2010 with two seconds and a sixth.
Liz Smith, meanwhile, missed winning the 200 breast last season by .13 seconds. That finish, along with Webb's 22.07 runnerup time in the 50 free, are the highest of any returning Stanford swimmers this year.
As for Maurer, a 1994 Stanford grad who swam on three straight NCAA title-winning teams from 1992-94, she's antsy to get her first as a coach.
"Our motto is: 'Some people follow their dreams; others chase them down and beat them mercilessly into submission.' It's my mission to win an NCAA title here at Stanford and the question is when is that going to happen?"
Notes: Cal's Jensen will defend her title in the 50 free, where she is ranked No. 2 nationally with a 21.73 time behind Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace of Auburn (21.34). Jensen is also No. 10 in the 100 free (48.34) and could swim on the 200 free relay (No. 4 seed), 800 free relay (No. 3) and 400 free relay (No. 2). Former Paly teammate Colleen Fotsch, another Cal junior, is ranked No. 11 in the 100 back (62.64) and No. 18 in the 100 fly (52.84) and could swim the 200 and 400 medley relays for the Bears . . . The Stanford women have won 131 individual NCAA titles, the most in history. Florida is second with 11 . . . when Stanford last won an NCAA team title, Misty Hyman was a Cardinal freshman and still two years away from winning an Olympic gold medal in Athens.