There aren't many teams who can lose two Olympic gold medalists in one year and still feel confident they can compete for not only a conference title but a national title as well.
With Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel, the past two NCAA titles seemed rather easy.
It's never easy, of course, and this year may prove to bear that out.
Ledecky and Manuel allowed Stanford to dominate the freestyle events. That won't be the case this year.
Still, the roster is full of swimmers with international experience and senior team captain Ella Eastin, the Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year, is at the top of the list.
She owns eight Pac-12 titles, is a 14-time All-America and 10-time national champion, including the 400 individual medley the past three years.
Eastin holds four American, NCAA and school records and is the reigning NCAA Championships Swimmer of the Meet.
Eastin, with freshman Taylor Ruck, a two-time Olympic medalist with Canada, helped Stanford open the conference meet the same it did last year; with a pair of second place finishes in the 200 medley relay and the 800 free relay.
After two events, Stanford is in second with 112 points. Cal leads with 128 points. The score is identical to last year's first day when Stanford wnet on to earn the Pac-12 title with 1,776 1/2 points, the second-most points in conference history.
Stanford opened the meet with a runner-up finish in the 200-yard medley relay. Eastin (24.07), Palo Alto grad Grace Zhao (27.29), Amalie Fackenthal (22.72) and Ruck (21.43) combined to finish with an NCAA automatic qualifying time of 1:35.51.
Eastin gave the Cardinal an early lead with the fastest backstroke split of the night, but in a close three-way race to the wall, Cal touched first and won with a time of 1:35.21.
The Cardinal finished second in the 800 freestyle relay with another 'A' qualifying time of 6:51.69.
Ruck opened with the fourth-fastest 200 free in school history at 1:42.80 and was followed by Eastin (1:42.55) and Katie Drabot (1:44.64). Brooke Forde took the anchor leg in 1:41.70, but Cal edged the Cardinal with a winning time of 6:50.63.
Stanford was set to score serious points in Thursday's 500-yard free as four swimmers qualified for the championship finals, including Lauren Pitzer's top mark of 4:36.18. Eastin was next in 4:36.28.
Morgan Tankersley and Erin Voss also qualified. In addition, Leah Stevens, Megan Byrnes and Katie Glavinovich reached the 'B' final and Hannah Kukurugya the 'C' final.
Gunn grad Jenna Campbell also reached the 'C' final for California.
In the 200 IM, Cardinal freshman Allie Raab, Drabot and Forde qualified for the championship final, with senior Kim Williams and Zoe Bartel reaching the 'B' final.
Castellija grad Natalie Tuck, who scored in two events for Cal in last year's meet, also swam in the 200 IM.
Ruck is the only Stanford swimmer to reach the 'A' final of the 50 free while Cal had three qualify. Freshmen Anya Goeders and Fackenthal qualified for the 'B' final and sophomore Ashley Volpenhein for the 'C' final.
Pitzer recorded the fourth-fastest time in the prelims but swam without the intention of advancing. Freshman Lucie Nordmann also swam as a non-qualifier.
Menlo-Atherton grad Mia Paulsen got her first chance to compete in the 1-meter diving event for the Cardinal, along with junior teammate Haley Farnsworth. Utah's Clare Greenlow, a Menlo Park resident, also competed.
The four-day championship meet continues through Saturday inside Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center.
Friday's events include the 400 IM, the 100 fly, the 200 free, the 100 breast, the 100 back and the 400 medley relay, historically one of Stanford's strongest days. There's also 3-meter diving (with Paulsen and Greenlow).
Eastin, Forde and junior Allie Szekely are the top three seeds in the 400 IM and Kukurugya, Stevens, Raab and Glavinovich are also seeded among the top 12. Tuck scored in the event last year.
Fackenthal, as a seventh-seed, is the lone Stanford competitor in the 100 fly. USC has four of the top six seeds in the event.
Zhao, Zoe Bartel, Williams and Raab are all seeded among the top 11 for the 100 breast. Ruck, Nordmann and Voss are among the top seven seeds in the 100 back.
Saturday's events are the 1,650 free, the 200 back, 100 free, 200 breast, 200 fly, the 400 free relay and platform diving.
Byrnes will be looking to three-peat in the 1,650. She won the event in 15:49.38 last year. Stevens is seeded third and Tankersley ninth.
Ruck, Eastin, Voss and Nordman are all capable of giving Stanford its first 200 back conference champion since Olympian Maya DiRado in 2012. They are the top four seeds. Szekely is seeded sixth.
Bartel, Forde, Szekely, Zhao and Raab are among the top seven seeds in the 200 breast.
Eastin has the nation's second-best time this year (1:52.07) in the 200 fly and Drabot ranks sixth (1:53.38). Eastin has won the previous three Pac-12 titles in the 200 fly, swimming a 1:49.51 last year. She's not entered this time around. Drabot will carry the torch, with Forde and Kukurugya also in the mix. Campbell could also score.
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