After Strong Season, Stanford Men Seeking Return to NCAA Powerhouse Status

Andrei Minakov -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

After Strong Season, Stanford Men Seeking Return to NCAA Powerhouse Status

When Dan Schemmel took the Stanford men’s head coaching job, he knew he had a difficult task at hand. The team just had its lowest finish at NCAAs in more than 40 years, and the program was graduating Olympian Abrahm DeVine and losing NCAA scorer True Sweetser to an Olympic redshirt. 

In Schemmel’s first season in charge of the Palo Alto school, the Cardinal had its lowest finish at Pac-12s since 1980 and were seeded to finish 27th at NCAAs before the meet was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Considering Stanford had arguably its worst season ever, one would think there was doubt surrounding the program. But while the results looked unfavorable, it was what the former Hawaii head coach was doing behind the scenes that excited Cardinal swim fans. 

Heading into the 2020-2021 season, Stanford possessed one of the best recruiting classes in the country. Featuring the likes of World Championships medalist Andrei Minakov and age-group standouts Ethan Hu, Luke Maurer, and Ethan Dang, the team looked poised to regain its standing as a top-10 team in the NCAA. 

Unfortunately, the comeback season the Cardinals dreamed of did not come to fruition. Due to COVID-19 restrictions that prevented students from being on campus during the school year, Minakov decided to take the year off, and NCAA qualifiers Jack Levant and Brennan Pastorek did not compete. As a result, Stanford finished 14th at NCAAs. While it was an improvement from 2019, it was a far cry from the perennial top-10 finishes the Cardinals were used to. 

With a return to normalcy in 2021-2022, combined with Minakov joining the team and the Cardinal adding top-ranked recruit Matt Fenlon and Israeli Olympian Ron Polonsky, this season was a make-or-break for the Schemmel era in terms of his impact on the team. He had two recruiting cycles to build his team, and the Cardinal were at full strength. 

Schemmel proved he is the right person to bring Stanford back to the top, leading the squad to an exceptional season. The Cardinal were unbeaten in dual-meet action, defeating the likes of Arizona State, USC and eventual NCAA champions Cal. The team took that momentum into Pac-12s, producing a fabulous showing to almost upset the Golden Bears for a second time. The Cardinal led for most of the meet but could not fend off a final day charge from Cal, which relegated them to the runnerup spot. 

Due to their spectacular swims at conference, pre-meet scored psych sheets predicted Stanford to finish sixth at NCAAs. Considering how well the team performed just a few weeks before, there were questions whether the team would be able to hold its tapers and, ultimately, its seeding heading at the NCAA championships. 

The Cardinal silenced doubters with another exceptional showing, finishing seventh at the meet, their highest placing since 2018. While Stanford slipped one place from its rankings heading into the championship, it was only eight points lower than its seed and less than 40 away from a top-five finish. As expected, Minakov was the team’s standout performer, delivering the team’s first NCAA title (in the 100 butterfly) since DeVine won his second 400 IM title in 2019. He had another trip to the podium with a school-record 41.09 in the 100 freestyle to grab third. The Russian was also integral to the Cardinal relays, which had top-eight finishes in all but the 200 free relay. 

Other top performers at the meet included junior Leon MacAlister, who swam a 1:39.67 (school record 1:38.95 in prelims) to finish fifth in the 200 back, and freshman Polonsky with two B-final appearances, including a sub-1:40 performance to grab the consolation final in the 200 IM.

Looking ahead to next season, if Daniel Roy decides to use his extra year of eligibility, Stanford only loses Grant Shoults and the 14 points he scored at NCAAs this year. That means the Cardinal will keep its relay legs intact. 

On the recruiting front, Schemmel has continued to lure elite-level talent to Palo Alto. While Shoults’ departure is a massive loss for the Stanford distance crew, the Cardinal add the top distance swimmer in the 2022 recruiting class in Liam Custer. Custer is a 14:37 miler at his best, faster than what Shoults went to finish ninth at NCAAs. 

Beyond Custer, Stanford also brings in age-group star Josh Zuchowski next season. Zuchowski is the second-fastest backstroker in the 2022 class, with his 200 back less than three-tenths away from what it took to qualify for this year’s NCAA Championships. 

The impressive recruiting does not stop there. The Cardinal also have the top high school 200 breaststroker heading to Palo Alto in Zhier Fan. The Plano, Texas native has dropped over four seconds in the event over the past 12 months and is just outside NCAA scoring range heading into his rookie season. 

If Minakov, MacAlister, and Polonsky can build on their impressive seasons, guys like Maurer, Preston Forst, and Jonathan Affeld continue improving, and the newcomers can hit the ground running, Stanford has an extremely high ceiling. 

While it has been a few years since the team has been in NCAA powerhouse conversations, with the progress made during the Schemmel era, it should not be long until the Cardinal are a perennial top-five team and potential NCAA contenders. 

Thanks to patience and incredible recruiting, the future looks bright in Palo Alto.