For Maria Higginbotham and the Christopher High girls swim team, being a part of the squad that helped the program clinch 50 consecutive wins on March 23 against San Benito was all about one person: coach Jeff Ross. Higginbotham, who has hit Central Coast Section Meet-qualifying times in the 100-yard freestyle along with the 200 free and 200 medley relay teams, expressed a deep sentiment for Ross.
“Coach has done so much for me in terms of being there for me whenever I needed it,” Higginbotham said. “When he told us the week before (the meet against San Benito) that a win would be the 50th straight, it was so surreal.”
However, about a third of the meet through Christopher found itself in a razor-thin close battle with the Haybalers, who outside of the Cougars probably have the best team in the Gabilan Division. The Cougars, who are used to blowing away opponents, suddenly had some doubt creep in their minds with so much riding on the line.
“When it was close, it was a little nerve-wracking,” Higginbotham said. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, are we really going to lose this meet?’ We were upset we might be letting coach down. He’s always so excited for us to do well, so we definitely didn’t want to lose this for coach. It’s really rewarding to see coach so happy.”
Indeed, Ross couldn’t have been prouder of the girls and their performance. When asked what being the coach of a program that has won 50 consecutive meets meant, Ross gave a somewhat prophetic statement.
“It means for me this could be my last rodeo,” the 68-year-old Ross said. “I retired from teaching at Christopher last year, and in coaching people don’t realize how much you put into it. But it’s been a dream coaching some of the teams I’ve had here.”
Ross has been the swim coach since the school opened—“We were out there when they were just building the campus and there was only dirt and gophers out there,” Ross said—so he’s built up quite an emotional attachment to the school and swim program. Ross said the 50 consecutive wins isn’t so much about the victories but more about what the girls team has come to represent in the city of Gilroy: a swimming evolution.
“This has been a wrestling town for boys and a softball town for girls,” he said. “We’ve been lucky to get some outstanding girl swimmers here, and it’s a tradition now. I guess if you wait around long enough, you can do anything. We get the girls in, they work hard and everything falls into place.”
Said Higginbotham: “It’s rewarding for all of us girls because we’ve worked our butts off and put the work daily in practice.”
In addition to Higginbotham, Christopher has several other standout swimmers whom Ross expects to hit CCS-qualifying times either in individual events or as a part of a relay, including Nicole Critzer, Kaylee Nguyen, Sierra Ceballos and Haylee Hartman. Higginbotham, Critzer, Nguyen and Ceballos make up the relay teams that have qualified for CCS, with Hartman serving as an alternate.
Higginbotham has many great memories swimming under Ross, starting in her freshman year when the longtime coach nicknamed her Hurricane Maria.
“He’s always been encouraging, but at the same time, if I need to be told something straight, he won’t hesitate to do that,” Higginbotham said. “When I ended up getting my 100 (free) cut (CCS time), he gave me a hug during the race. A couple of days later, he texted me, ‘See, you’re still the hurricane.’ Certain things like that always make you feel special.”
Higginbotham admitted she peaked as an eighth- and ninth-grader, and yet she’s come to the realization that it’s OK to enjoy the journey and have fun. The biggest moment of her career came as a ninth grader when she was racing at the time for the Gilroy Gators club team.
Competing in a meet in Reno, Higginbotham was involved in a unique 50-meter free challenge that started off with approximately 70 swimmers. After each round, swimmers are cut until two final swimmers are left at the end. Higginbotham swam five to six rounds over two or three days, and even more impressive, she swam three other events simultaneously during the competition.
“I was really proud because I definitely didn’t think I would get that far,” she said. “It’s one of those things where I could’ve stopped and not try anymore, but instead I pushed myself to see how far I could go. I’m glad I pushed myself that far.”
Ross has done likewise as a coach, knowing he could’ve well retired from coaching a couple of years ago. However, Ross enjoys coaching swimmers who are dedicated and continually guiding them, as there is a different dynamic every season. Ross has had some great memories at Christopher, including three years ago when the Cougars won the league championships.
“In that meet our first relay team got disqualified, so we started the meet out 32 points behind,” he said. “By the time the meet is over, we win by 44 points. There is no way we should’ve won it the way we did. It was awesome.”