Can Torri Huske and Claire Curzan Make Stanford Women a National Title Threat?

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Torri Huske -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Can Torri Huske and Claire Curzan Make Stanford Women a National Title Threat?

In March, a long-awaited battle for the NCAA women’s team title between defending champion Virginia and a resurgent Stanford squad never materialized. The Cavaliers utterly dominated the national championship meet as Kate DouglassAlex Walsh and Gretchen Walsh combined for seven individual national titles as Virginia finished first and/or second in all but three individual swimming events. The Cavaliers won four of the five relays and finished second in the other two.

Stanford, meanwhile, got national titles from Taylor Ruck and Regan Smith plus runnerup finishes from Torri Huske and Brooke Forde, but the Cardinal suffered from a lack of depth while recording only 12 A-final finishes the entire meet. And on the final day, a six-up performance from Texas in swimming plus an additional three A-finalists in diving put the Longhorns into second place by six-and-a-half points over Stanford.

During the early portion of the 2022-23 season, the consensus has been that Virginia is a near-lock for a third consecutive title, and the attention has been on Texas as the closest potential threat. The Longhorns beat Virginia in a dual meet in early November (even though the Cavaliers had a key relay disqualification that mathematically cost them the win), and Texas was recently ranked No. 1 in the CSCAA dual meet poll (albeit one where voters were instructed to honor Texas’ win).

But there has been less attention on Stanford, a team which had only raced three low-profile dual meets prior to traveling east for the NC State Invitational. The Cardinal lost two important pieces with Forde exhausting her eligibility and Smith turning pro, but Olympian Claire Curzan was added to the mix. And this weekend in Greensboro, N.C., the Huske-Curzan-Ruck trio showed out.

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Claire Curzan — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

With the dust settled from a busy weekend of racing, Huske now owns the top times in the nation in the 100 freestyle, 100 butterfly and 200 IM, while Curzan easily tops the rankings in two of the deepest events in the country, the 100 and 200 backstroke. Ruck ranks first in the 200 free, and freshman Charlotte Hook is tops in the 200 fly. Buoyed by Curzan’s sprint skills, Stanford’s relay potential has increased significantly.

The Cardinal will have plenty of lineup decisions to make in advance of the national meet, but the best option look relatively clear-cut right now: Huske sticking with the 200 IM Thursday, 100 fly Friday and 100 free Saturday while Curzan takes on the 50 free Thursday, 100 back Friday and 200 back Saturday. That would cover six different individual events, and Huske and Curzan would not be taking points away from each other. It would be tough to unseat the Virginia defending title-winners in Thursday’s events, but the Stanford duo would probably be considered the slight favorites or at least co-favorites in all four Friday and Saturday events.

It’s no secret that Stanford will win its share of individual titles in March and be a principal contender in the relays. But just like last year, Stanford’s fate will come down to how much of an impact their non-superstar swimmers can make. Can returning swimmers like Lillie Nordmann and Morgan Tankersley replicate their high-impact performances from a year ago? Can freshmen Kayla Wilson and Lucy Bell make an instant impact? Both recorded national top-eight times in Greensboro, Wilson in the 200 free and Bell in the 400 IM.

Perhaps most importantly, can Stanford get anything out of the breaststroke events? The Cardinal lose a lot of points in the individual events as to primary rivals Texas and Virginia, with the Longhorns’ Anna Elendt and Lydia Jacoby likely A-finalists in both events and the Cavaliers’ Kate Douglass holding the American record in the 200 breast. Sophomore Sam Tadder handled breaststroke duties on the Cardinal’s top medley relays at the NC State Invite, but her 400 medley split was more than a second behind the breaststrokers from NC State and Duke. Medley relays with Curzan on back, Huske on fly and Ruck anchoring are great, but they desperately need some breaststroke speed to remain competitive.

Big picture, it would still be an upset if Stanford could dethrone Virginia this season, but head coach Greg Meehan’s group has the pieces to make the season interesting, particularly Stanford’s lesser-known swimmers can continue to make incremental improvements. However, the Cardinal might be a breaststroke miracle away from truly creating a two-team battle for the title.

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