Despite setting two new American relay records, winning 10 individual Pac-12 titles and mounting a furious rally on the final day of the meet, No. 1 Stanford women’s swimming and diving ultimately fell just short of the top prize, finishing as the Pac-12 runner-up for the third straight season, as No. 4 USC held off the Stanford surge to claim its first ever conference championship.
Although Stanford trailed USC by just 5 team points, 951-946, after the first three days of the four-day meet, victories in the last five events were still not enough as USC ultimately prevailed with a final team score of 1,481 to Stanford’s 1,344. No. 6 Cal rounded out the podium as it finished in third with its team score of 1,306.
Despite the disappointment of finishing second, there were still plenty of bright spots for the Cardinal over the course of the meet, highlighted by an emphatic sweep of the 200 and 400 medley relay events — both of which resulted in new American records.
The same team of sophomore Ally Howe (back), senior Sarah Haase (breast), sophomore Janet Hu (fly) and junior Lia Neal (free) claimed both of those new American records, with their 1:34.15 in the 200 medley relay topping Cal’s 2012 record of 1:34.24, and their 3:26.25 in the 400 medley relay beating the 3:26.41 record the Cardinal set themselves last season. (Howe and Hu were actually part of that record-setting 2015 relay as well.)
“We really stepped up tonight, and to cap it off with an NCAA and American record is special,” said head coach Greg Meehan after the third day of the event finished with the 400 medley relay title.
Despite USC having already locked up the title, Stanford also claimed a victory in the 400 freestyle relay to close the meet in 3:11.44 in a tight race between Stanford, USC and Cal, which all touched within a half-second of each other. After the first three legs left the relay at a virtual dead heat between Stanford and USC, Neal’s blazing anchor leg of 46.91 left USC anchor Anika Apostalon in the dust and ensured Stanford’s dominance in three of the four relay events at the meet.
Meanwhile, freshman Ella Eastin was unstoppable, claiming Pac-12 titles in all three of her events — the 200 IM, 400 IM and 200 fly — to pace the Stanford field. Neal also added two sprint titles in the 100 free and 200 free, while Haase swept the two breaststroke titles and Howe added an individual title of her own in the 100 back.
Eastin’s 1:52.77 in the final of the 200 IM — just ahead of the 1:52.80 from Cal freshman Kathleen Baker — was the seventh-best finish in American history. Meanwhile, her later title in the 400 IM was accomplished in an eye-popping 3:59.30, seven seconds ahead of second place and the first sub-4-minute time in the event this year.
After finishing in second in the 50 free final behind a meet record-setting performance from Cal junior Farida Osman, Neal ramped up the intensity in the final two days of the meet. She led the 200 free from start to finish on Friday in 1:42.50 as the only swimmer to meet the NCAA “A” standard, and again led the 100 free throughout on Saturday. The junior will look to defend her NCAA Championship podium finishes in both events in mid-March.
Haase’s 58.02 in the 100 breast set a new meet and Pac-12 record (and also a personal record), qualifying her for the NCAA “A” cut. Her 2:07.69 in the 200 breast was nowhere near the record pace but still snagged her the title, as she finished more than a second ahead of USC freshman Riley Scott. Meanwhile, Howe’s 50.71 title performance in the 100 back was a new Stanford record as she barely out-touched Cal standout Rachel Bootsma.
On the diving side, sophomore Gracia Leydon-Mahoney was a dominant force, finishing fourth in the 1-meter, but sweeping the 3-meter and platform titles. She and senior Alex Clay finished 1-2 in the 3-meter with scores of 379.55 and 362.95, respectively. Leydon-Mahoney blew away the rest of the pack with her 341.40 in the platform, a solid 29 points ahead of second-place finisher Eloise Belanger of Cal.
Stanford will now have a chance to taper before the NCAA Zone E Diving Championships on March 7 and the NCAA Championships in Atlanta from March 16-19, at which the Cardinal will seek their third consecutive top-three national finish and their first title since 1998.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.