These Mustangs go in the fast lane

Ellie Pickford, Hannah Stelzner, Alexa Bennett and Payton Reeder have hit CCS standard times in all three relay events. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The Gilroy High swimming quartet of sophomore Alexa Bennett, junior Ellie Pickford, and freshmen Hannah Stelzner and Payton Reeder face a good problem: since athletes are only allowed to swim in two of the three relays in any one meet, the four swimmers—who have hit Central Coast Section qualifying times in the 200 freestyle, 200 medley and 400 free relay events—must choose two to compete in. Relative to CCS competition, their best relay is the 200 free. 

“I’m projecting possibly in the 200 free they can be top 16 in CCS,” Mustangs coach Doug Pickford said. “It’ll be the first time in my memory a relay team from Gilroy has made it to the Saturday (second day) of CCS. It’s been a while since a group has made it to the finals.”

In the medley relays, Stelzner swims the backstroke, Reeder the breast stroke, Pickford the butterfly and Bennett the freestyle. Last year’s relay team had Bennett, Pickford and then-seniors Ashley Harding and Katelyn Brolin. The latter two have been replaced by a pair of freshmen who have made some impressive waves. Reeder and Stelzner swim for the Gilroy Gators club program, which has experienced a renaissance under renowned coach Wayne Norris. 

“Right out of the shoot this year’s group challenged for the best time the previous group had done,” Pickford said. “Payton and Hannah have a deep, career swimming discipline and ethic, and you don’t have to tell them what they need to do.”

Bennett and Pickford are water polo standouts who utilize the swimming to improve their speed and stamina while enjoying the sport and the camaraderie. Bennett, who played water polo for Christopher High in her freshman year before doing a mid-year transfer to Gilroy High and then competing for the Mustangs swim team a couple of months later, has been impressed with Reeder, Stelzner and the overall makeup of the relay team. 

“I think they’re doing absolutely amazing,” she said. “They’re such great teammates and so fast I think it’s amazing. To already make CCS has been a really great experience, and to do it with such sweet girls makes it that much more enjoyable. The team dynamic is great because we have a really good relationship and all of us support each other. I really love my relay team.”

Reeder has already hit a CCS qualifying standard time in the breast stroke and likely will qualify in the 500 free, while Stelzner looks to qualify in the backstroke and 500 free. Bennett and Pickford aim to make it in the 50-and 100-free events. Other standouts on the girls team include sophomore Alena Lepe, who won the Pacific Division championship in the 200 free last year, and sophomore Fatima Gonzalez, who swims the butterfly. Pickford expressed pride in both swimmers, noting Gonzalez truly embracing what it takes to reach another level. 

“I kept telling her if you don’t want to die in a swim meet, you have to die in practice,” Pickford said. “So you can embrace it instead of being afraid of it, and she’s really taken that to heart and has taken off.”

With no seniors in the starting lineup, Gilroy seems set up to have some spectacular seasons going forward. Even though the numbers are very limited for the boys team—there are eight members on the junior varsity and varsity squads combined—Pickford praised the effort and performances of an athlete like Nate Cazares, who took second place in the Pacific Division 50 free finals last season. 

“He can definitely move,” Pickford said. “He has an outside chance of making the 50 free CCS standard, which would be great.”

Two other returners include a pair of sophomores in Ross Gordon and Jacob Muncy. Gordon took third last year in the 500 free, while Muncy competes in the sprint and breast stroke events. 

“They’re both very hard workers and easy to coach,” Pickford said. “I enjoy having them out there a lot.”

Two of the key newcomers include senior Lucas Bundros, who does the sprints and fly events, and sophomore Lucas Bissell, who races the 50 free and breast stroke events. Bundros, who had a solid season last fall on the cross country team, had never swam competitively before until this season. 

“He’s been a diamond in the rough because he’s an athlete,” Pickford said. “He has really blossomed and you wouldn’t recognize him from the beginning of the year to now. He’s a different swimmer and much improved.”

Bissell, who plays on the water polo team, possesses raw talent and a passion to get faster. 

“We’re working on his technique with his starts and turns,” Pickford said. “He’s a fast kid and I’m looking forward to working with him in the next couple of years because he has a lot of energy and puts in the effort to be productive.”

Bennett has a personal-record (PR) of 26.03 seconds in the 50 free, and she’ll need to cut that down by approximately half a second to make the CCS qualifying time. 

“I’m really hoping to make CCS this year (in the 50 free) with all the training from coach Doug,” she said. “He really does a nice job of helping us hone in on reaching our goals.”

Bennett said she constantly works on refining her stroke, knowing a more efficient stroke equals faster times. 

“I definitely try to correct my stroke a little and try to work to get the most pull on the stroke,” she said.

Bennett said she’s had a great experience both at Christopher High and Gilroy High. When Bennett is competing in a race, she likes to have someone besides her in either lane so she can push herself and set angles to go as fast as possible. Doug Pickford put Ellie and Alexa in the same category of swimmers who will peak at the end of the season. 

“They’re both water polo players, but have accomplished enough from a swimming perspective that drops in times will come at the end of the year,” he said. “I’m thinking toward league finals is where we’ll see meaningful drops in times. When you get to a certain level in swimming, the concept of continuous improvement is hard to master sometimes, but Ellie and Alexa have really done a good job of staying with it and continuing to work hard.”

Reeder and Stelzner are what Pickford refers to as “career swimmers,” or year-round athletes whose sole focus from an athletic perspective is swimming. Reeder, in fact, competed in the Far Western Short Course Nationals last week at the George Haines International Swim Center in Santa Clara, advancing to the finals in four of the seven races—yes seven—events she entered. 

“I reached all of my goals (in the meet),” said Reeder, who has a PR of 1:09.2 in the 100 breast stroke and 5:14 in the 500 free. “My times were pretty good, but there were also some not so good ones.”

The life of an advanced level swimmer can be downright exhausting. The Far Westerns started on a Thursday and ended on Sunday. Each day, Reeder started her warm-ups at 7:30 a.m., with races going off at 9 a.m. and ending around 1 p.m. That was just the first session of the program for each day. The second session started around 3 p.m. and lasted until around 5.  

That wasn’t the full extent of Reeder’s swim competition for the week. On Friday, Reeder also competed in Gilroy High’s dual meet against Salinas. 

“I enjoy high school swimming,” she said. “When I’m racing, you have the whole team cheering for you and watching you. We’re all really close to each other, which makes the experience more enjoyable.”

Reeder and Stelzner met each other three years ago while swimming for the Gilroy Gators club program, and they’ve developed a deep friendship over that time. 

“We got really close fast and now we go to meets together and are best friends,” Reeder said. 

Reeder has her eyes set on the CCS Championships. She sees a top-five finish in the 100 breast stroke in the future, perhaps as early as next year. Jacob Hatch of Sobrato High is believed to be the only athlete—boy or girl—from the South Valley area of Gilroy, Morgan Hill and Hollister—who has achieved a top-five finish in the CCS Championships in the last five years. 

Reeder would love to join that elite company, and Pickford and Gilroy Gators coach Wayne Norris believe the freshman sensation is a special talent who is on her way to achieving that goal.

“If she’s had a growth spurt the last two years, she still has the ability to put on more muscle, etc., etc.,” Pickford said. “From a stroke point of view, she has spectacular technique, and she works her tail off. I don’t think anything is in her way other than what is between her ears, and I say that for every swimmer who is looking to compete at an elite level. They have to have something special in the gray matter because it’s possible to get good, but it’s almost impossible to get great. Does she have the raw capability to be great? Absolutely.”

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