Sports

Stanford women young, fast and among NCAA contenders

 

Stanford accomplished something that no other team did at the 2014 NCAA Women's Swimming and Diving Championships -- win four of the five relay events.

The Cardinal scored 192 points in relays, including a third place in the 800 free relay. Stanford also set four school records on the way to scoring 402.5 points and finishing second to Georgia's 528.

That brings us to this week's NCAA Championships in Greensboro, N.C. The Cardinal relay teams are ranked among the top three in each of the five races and could be even faster than last year.

But, will that be enough to bring Stanford its first national title since 1998 when the star of the team was Olympic gold medalist Misty Hyman?

Stanford coach Greg Meehan will have that questioned answered on Saturday when the three-day meet concludes. Action begins Thursday at the Greensboro Aquatic Center.

Cal, which won NCAA itles in 2011 and '12, is the prohibitive favorite this week. Two-time defending champ Georgia looks may have to settle for second while Stanford looks be the third-place team.

The Cardinal will be seeking its 35th straight top-eight finish and 11th top-five showing in the past 12 years. More importantly, however, is that elusive top spot.

Stanford has qualified 12 individual swimmers, two more than last year, and two relay-only swimmers plus two divers. Of the 16 athletes entered (the most by any team is 18), 10 will be competing at the NCAA meet for the first time.

"We are really excited for them to be there and get that experience of what the NCAA championships are all about," said Meehan. "It is absolutely the best collegiate meet every year."

The young Cardinal squad is a favorite to contend for the NCAA team title and in a number of individual races, with freshman Simone Manuel expected to play a very big role.

Manuel owns NCAA-best times in the 50- and 100-yard freestyles, while clocking the No. 2 time in the 200-yard free behind Olympic champion Missy Franklin of Cal. The two match up again after Franklin edged Manuel for the Pac-12 title two weeks ago.

Franklin, a sophomore, will be competing in her final NCAA meet before she turns pro. Manuel will be in her first. Both are expected to make waves this week.

Manuel will be on a mission in the 100 free, aiming to get that American record back from Abbey Weitzeil after owning it for about two weeks in November. Manuel swam a 46.62 in late November to lower her own American mark, but Weitzeil -- now a high school senior -- responded with a 46.29.

Manuel owns school records in the 50 free (21.59), 100 free (46.62) and 200 free (1:41.15). Franklin, however, is the No. 1 seed in the 200 free at 1:41.09.

Stanford last had NCAA champs in those events in 1999 (Catherine Fox), 1996 (Claudia Franco) and 1984 (Marybeth Linzmeier). Other than in the relays, Stanford's most recent national crowns were set by graduated seniors -- Maya DiRado (200 IM and 400 IM) and Felicia Lee (100 fly) -- in 2014.

Meehan hopes to be challenging for quite a few titles this week.

"I know, publicly, it is going to be a pretty epic battle between Missy Franklin and Simone Manuel in the 200 freestyle, but we're pretty good across the board," Meehan said.

Stanford also features eight other top-16 seeds, besides Manuel's three.

"We're looking forward to our breaststrokers, who have been good all year, and the opportunities they have in front of them," added Meehan. "And Lia Neal has been charging towards the end of the season, getting better meet-by-meet, so we're really excited about all of that."

Neal is second behind Manuel in the 100 free and fifth and 19th in the 200 and 50, respectively.

The 100-yard breaststroke could end up being one of the team's top events. Sarah Haase (third) and Heidi Poppe (eighth) are seeded to be in the 'A' final and Katie Olsen, who finished fifth in the nation last year, is qualified in 30th.

Stanford's one big weakness is in the distance events, where the Cardinal has only one swimmer ina the 500 free and none in the 1,650 free. That problem will be fixed next year when world recordholder Katie Ledecky arrives on The Farm.

The IM races also won't be as strong following DiRado's departure, and Stanford needs to pick up some diving points from Kassidy Cook (1- and 3-meter) and/or Lilly Hinrichs (platform).

Sacred Heart Prep grad Ally Howe, one of five freshmen competing this week, will carry Cardinal hopes in both backstrokes plus the 200 IM. Her best event is the 100 back, where she is seeded No. 6.

Thus, Meehan needs to make the most of his current group while knowing full well that even more help is on the way.

Stanford has won the NCAA title eight times, the most of any team in the nation, but looks to be a year away from winning No. 9.

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