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A Preview of the Women's Pac-10 Champsq, Which Open Today -- February 27, 2003

FEDERAL WAY, Wa., February 27. NUMBER 8-ranked Stanford (8-2, 4-1 Pac-10) will open defense of its Pac-10 title today when the conference's 2003 Women's Swimming and Diving Championships begin here.

(The Cardinal men, 20-year defending Pac-10 champs, open defense of their title a week from today at Long Beach's Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool.)

The Cardinal has won 14 of the 16 team championships since the Pac-10 instituted a women's title meet in 1987. Stanford won last year's championship after UCLA won the year before (2001) and Arizona the year before that. In fact, the Cardinal won the conference's first 13-consecutive crowns before finishing runner-up to Coach Frank Busch's Wildcats three seasons ago -- and fourth to Coach Cindy Gallagher's Bruins the year following.

The meet will feature six of the nation's Top 15 teams with No. 6 Arizona, No. 7 California, No. 9 USC, No. 12 UCLA and No. 15 Arizona State joining the eighth-ranked Cardinal. The meet will serve as the final opportunity for individual swimmers and divers to qualify for the NCAA Championships, slated to begin March 20 at the home of the defending national champs, Coach David Marsh's Auburn Lady Tigers -- who won their first-ever Southeastern COnference Championship last weekend at (surprise!) Auburn.

Stanford athletes have accounted for seven Pac-10 Swimmer of the Year honors, three Pac-10 Diver of the Year awards and one Pac-10 Diving Freshman/Newcomer of the Year honor. However, Cal's Natalie Coughlin has been the league's most outstanding swimmer the past two seasons.

Cardinal coach Richard Quick has been named Pac-10 Coach of the Year four times and former coach George Haines once -- the only school to have two different coaches win that award. Stanford's Rick Schiavone, who also coaches the male divers, has been named the conference's Diving Coach of the Year four times too. All told, Stanford has won 198 Pac-10 individual and relay titles, double No. 2, although at the rate Coughlin's been wracking up the victories that may soon change.

The meet's schedule mirrors that of the NCAA Championships, with the 200 free relay, 500 free, 200 IM, 50 free, 1-meter diving and 400 medley relay on Day 1; the 200 medley relay, 400 IM, 100 fly, 200 free, 100 breast, 100 back, 3-meter diving and the 800 free relay on Day 2; and the 1650 free (no prelims), 200 back, 100 free, 200 breast, 200 fly, platform diving and, concluding 400 free relay, on the final day.

The meet features Olympians, world record-holders, Olympic gold medalists, NCAA Champions -- perhaps the finest collection of women swimmers and divers from any conference in the country.

For openers, there's Mlle Coughlin, double-defending Pac-10 100-200 back/100 fly champ, who's also defending NCAA Champion in those races and the American/national-collegiate record-holder as well. Additionally, Coughlin -- a junior for Coach Teri McKeever's Golden Bears -- holds the American/NCAA records in the 200-200 fly, which she set last December at the Tiger Invitational in Auburn.

Oh, she also holds the American/NCAA standard in the 100 free, (47.47), which she swam while leading off Cal's 400 free relay at NCAAs last season in Texas. That in turn broke the record of 47.56 that Georgia's Maritza Correia had set en route to the 100 free gold itself just moments earlier.

"Ritzy" almsot got the record back last weekend at SECs, winning the 100 free in a pr and conference-record 47.49. Perhaps wisely, she opted not to try and break the record leading off Georgia's 400 free relay, presumably prefering to save it for NCAAs and -- who knows? -- perhaps even a showdown with Coughlin on the relay.

It's not known for sure what Coughlin will swim here but source tell www.swiminfo.com that she's considering the "Goodell" triple, i.e., the 500 free-400 IM-1650 free, named after former UCLA All-America (and double Montreal Olympic gold-medalist) Brian, who won that particular triple at NCAAs for three-consecutive seasons from 1977 through 1979. Goodell's the only swimmer of either sex to win that triple but he was unable to four-peat his senior season due to illness.

Then there's Stanford's seven-time NCAA champion, junior Tara Kirk, American/NCAA record-holder in both the 100-200 ayrd breaststrokes, defending Pac-10 and NCAA champ in both, and ranked No. 1 nationally (59.74) and 200 (2:09.66). Kirk has also been a member of the Cardinal's American/NCAA record-setting 200-400 medley relay teams.

Kirk extended her perfect string of victories in the 100 breast to 25 this season with wins the first eight times she competed in the event during 2002-03. She's also won all seven times she has competed in the 200 breast.

To make sure she doesn't feel lonely at the top, Arizona State's Agnes Kovacs -- Hungary's Olympic and World Champion in the 200 meter breast -- has pushed Kirk every inch of the way at the last Pac-10 and NCAA championship, particularly in the 200. Kovacs and her coach (Mike Chasson) both believe the tide may finally begin turning in their favor here as far as getting on the board with a "w".

Another leading Arizonan -- this one from Busch's U of A Wildcat team -- is defending 500 free champ Emily Mason, who's also an oustanding 400 IMer and talented 200 flyer. The 2002 Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year, she swam on AU's winning 800 free relay at NCAAs. Mason won the Pac-10 500 in a pr, Wildcat- and conference-record 4:38.79, some two seconds faster than Southern Methodist's Flavia Rigamonti's 4:40.13 that won NCAAs a mont later..

(In another ironic twist, Georgia freshman Julie Hardt won the NCAA consolation finals in 4:39.89.)

USC has sseveral potential winners, starting with sophomore Kaitlin Sandeno, a Sydney Olympian who swam at last season's meet with a very sore back. She's healthy now and has been a leading scorer for USC this season in the 200-500-1000 frees, 200 back-200 fly and even the 400 IM. Whatever races she swims here she'll be a strong contender for No. 1 honors.

SC also has British imports Margaret Pedder, a freshman middle-distance freestyler-200 flyer, plus sophomore Joanna Fargus, a finalist at NCAAs in the 200 back. Coach Mark Schubert's Women of Troy also feature defending Pac-10 400 IM champ Michala Kwasny, distance specialist Asa Sandlund; frosh breaststroker Kammy Miller, who's made big drops; and flyer Jana Krohn, a medal-threat in both the 100-200.

Similar to Texas' men last season, who won NCAAs primarily on the strength of their divers, the Trojans have a "secret weapon" of their own in diver Blythe Hartley. She's defending NCAA Champ on the 1-meter and platform events, and was runner-up on the 3-meter. Her added points (a potential 60) could well put SC in a position to challenge for the title.

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Card frosh Kristen Caverly, has three times that rank her among the nation's Top 10 through mid-February: third 400 IM (3rd, 4:10.37); 200 IM (10th, 1:59.58) and 200 breast (10th, 2:14.28). Caverly has also scored 13 individual dual meet titles during the seeason, second only to Kirk's 15. Teammate Lacey Boutwell, a sophomore sprinter-flyer, also has 13 while Dana Kirk --- Tara's sister who, like Caverly, is a freshman -- has seven wins.

Stanford has four returning 2002 Pac-10 champions in Tara Kirk (100-200 breast, 400 medley relay); Boutwell (50 free), Jones (400 medley relay) and Amy Wagner (400 medley relay). Stanford's freshman class includes four swimmers who have finaled at U.S. Nationals, including Caverly (a multi-winner), Ashley Daly, Laura Davis (a teammate of Coughlin's on the Terrapins' USS club) and Dana Kirk.

Stanford and USC are the only Pac-10 teams to have won NCAAs since the women's meet was inaugurated in '82, with Florida winning at Gainesville. The Cardinal has eight titles (1983 under legendary George Haines) and then '89,'92-'96,'98, all with Richard Quick at the helm.

Stanford has won NCAAs six times in the last 11 years and has nine national titles overall, including an AIAW title in 1980. Interestingly, Quick is the only coach to win consecutive NCAAs at two different schools. He won at Texas from '84 through '88, then moved to The Farm for the '89 season and won again. Texas, has not won since his departure.

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UCLA has one of its strongest amd deepest teams ever, led by Swedish import -- sophomore Malin Svahnstrom, -- who's set Bruin records int he 200 free and 200 IM. She's joined by former prep All-America Kim Vandernberg, a very promising freshman who'll be after the UCLA record (1:55.75) in the 200 fly held by former Pac-10 champ Annette Salmeen. Vandenberg's already been 1:57+ unshaved and Bruin boss Gallagher predicts "big things" for her talented rookie.

Another speedy Bruin is sprinter Sarah Platzer, a former Washington state prep All-America and state high school record-holder, who's the fastest Bruin of 'em all with her prs of 22.44-49.33 -- both UCLA records. Flyer-freestyler Kristen Lewis is another Bruin whom Gallagher believes is due for a major breakthrough, especially in the 100 fly, where she's among the national leaders.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Cal is NOT just a one-woman team. Senior Staciana Stitts, a former conference breaststroke champ and Golden Bear record-holder in the 100-200, is a threat to both Kirk and Kovacs in each event; backstroker Helen Silver, a froshwoman who's a former Seattle prep All-America and will have a sizeable contigent of family and friends (not to mention her sister Emily, Washington state champ this season in the 50-100 frees). Silver's come on strong the second half of the season and had several key wins in dual meets against USC, UCLA and the Arizona schools.

Cal also has a promising sprinter in junior Danielle Becks, whom McKeever believes is ready to join the conference's elite; distance specialist Ashley Chandler, who's been biding her time, waiting to make her mark at Pac-10s; junior IMer-flyer Natalie Griffiths, a potential finalist in several events; and senior sprinter Michelle Harper, who's also a medal-threat.

Oregon State will be counting on breastsroker Birte Stevens to keep Kirk and Kovacs company. She's among the national leaders in both the 100-200 (Beaver records 1:01.68-2:12.02) and is looking to gnaw on some Cardinal and chew up some Sun Devil before the weekend's completed.

Teammate Naya Higashijima is a 1:57.7+ 200 flyer who could also final in this race and perhaps one or two others too.

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The Cardinal lost two dual meets this season (No. 1 Auburn at home and then Arizona on the road), first time that's happened in living memory.

But with the Kirks, Caverly, Boutwell, Wagner and diver Ashley Rosenthal leading the way, when the splashing's complete Saturday evening the scoreboard should read: "Stanford No. 1."

-- Bill Bell