Kylie Nguyen was one of several standouts from Christopher who shined in the MBL Championships. Photo by Robert Eliason.

For the ninth consecutive year and the 13th time overall, the Christopher High girls swimming team earned a Monterey Bay League title. The Cougars were too tough once again in the MBL Gabilan Division Championships last Saturday, totaling 359 points to easily finish ahead of runner-up Salinas (272).

Gilroy High was equally dominant in winning the Pacific Division championship and just as impressive in taking second in the overall standings (boys and girls points combined). The Mustangs did it with the second smallest squad—12 girls and four boys—in the league.

Christopher and Gilroy had several standouts excel, no surprise considering the city is rich with swimming talent. Swimmers with the best overall time in an event—counting both divisions—included Christopher’s Kylie Nguyen (100-yard breast stroke in 1 minute, 9.78 seconds), Nicole Critzer (100 butterfly in 59.45), Chris Critzer (100 freestyle), and Maria Higginbotham (100 and 200 free in 2:00.91).

Top overall time event winners from Gilroy included Katelyn Brolin, who won the 500 free in 5:38.90, edging out Christopher freshman Ashley Flores’ 5:39.16 in one of the most exciting races of the day. The Mustangs also received stellar performances from Ashley Harding, Alena Lepe and Adam Thompson, who won two Pacific Division titles in the 100 fly and 200 IM—his time of 1:02.72 in the fly was the fourth best overall time.

Lepe won the Pacific title in the 200 free in 2:13.65, and Harding was stellar, taking the third best overall time in the 100 breast stroke in 1:12.32 and fourth best in the 100 free in 58.67.

Ellie Pickford took home the Pacific Division championship in the 100 butterfly, Nate Cazares took second overall in the 50 free in 24.06, and Alexa Bennett took third overall in the 50 free in 26.03. The high-points leader of the Championships was Higginbotham, who in addition to winning Gabilan titles in the 100 and 200 free was part of Christopher’s victorious 200 free and 200 medley relay teams.

In addition to Higginbotham, the squads feature Critzer, Nguyen, Sierra Ceballos and Haley Hartman. Higginbotham entered the Championships not expecting to win the 200 free since she came in third place to two San Benito swimmers in the teams’ dual league meet. In the 100 at that same meet, a San Benito swimmer outouched her at the wall. However, Higginbotham got the best of the San Benito swimmers in the league’s biggest meet.

“I was feeling pretty good and everything felt smooth,” she said. “Being a part of the relays was so satisfying because our two biggest competitors were Salinas and San Benito, so going into them we talked about having to do it for coach (Jeff Ross). We’re not used to losing relays (which they did against San Benito), so it got us fired up to win.”

Higginbotham, Nguyen and both of the Critzers earned CCS qualifying standards in their individual events. Ross was effusive in his praise of his swimmers.

“Kylie is a freshman and she smoked it,” he said. “She is the most quiet girl ever, but she is an animal in the pool, a superstar. Maria is the real deal, just the best. Nicole is a bulldog and just a sophomore, and we also have three girls coming in next year who are quick. Ashley Flores takes everything that comes her way and is constantly improving. And Chris and Nicole are sophomore twins who work hard and go after it.”

The Christopher junior varsity boys won their respective league title, meaning there is an excellent chance the Cougars will have a boys varsity team—something they didn’t have this season—next year.

“And the girls will be right up there again competing for the title,” said Ross, who has hinted as this being his final year of coaching.

If it is, Ross will leave the program in terrific shape. One has to look no further than Nguyen and the Critzer twins, as the trio continues to get faster with each stroke. Nguyen, who is one of the top freshmen in the CCS, is a versatile and hard working talent whose ceiling seems limitless.

Same goes for the Critzers, as Chris won the 100 free rather handily, clocking a 49.03. He also had the second best overall time in the 200 free in 1:48.19. Nicole, meanwhile, won the 100 butterfly by a whopping 6 seconds in 59.45. It was one of the most impressive performances of the meet.

She also had the third best overall time in the 100 backstroke in 1:04.67. Nicole said both of the relay events—while exciting—were also stressful. However, she handled her splits just fine. Critzer’s goal is to swim the 100 fly in 57 or 58 seconds at the CCS Meet.

“My mindset is simply to get the job done,” she said.

In winning the 100 free, Chris put together an even split, a sign he knows how to properly pace himself for a race.

“My mindset is I didn’t want to go out too fast because I wanted to have some legs coming back,” he said. “My goal is to make it to the CCS Finals in the 200 free.”

The twins are close but not inseparable, which is a good thing. They have their own identities and are independent of one another. Although they’re similar in many ways—competitive and willing to put in long hours in the pool—they’re also markedly different.
A couple of times a week, Chris will do double day practices, first in the morning with his club team and then in the afternoon with Christopher. Chris also does strength-training a couple of times a week and plays water polo for his club team on Sunday, meaning he rarely—if ever—takes a day off.

But that is why the successful swimmers reach the level they’re at, because they’re willing to put in mind-numbing lap after lap to reach their goal. Speaking of laps, Brolin swam 20 of them to take the 500 free in thrilling fashion. The Gilroy senior started fast—perhaps a bit too fast—before holding off a hard-charging Flores for the victory.

Brolin took her first 100 out in 1:03 before settling into a range of 1:07 to 1:10 the rest of the way. Her final 100 split was, in fact, a 1:10. Brolin was elated and downright exhausted once she touched the wall.

“I was hitting my pace the whole time and feeling strong the entire race,” she said. “It went by really fast, and I knew I did better but didn’t think I went that fast.”

Brolin smashed her previous PR by 17 ½ seconds. Brolin chalked up a huge PR to the constant pace work she’s been doing in practice. Knowing what lap times she had to tick off, Brolin kept focused and her stamina was there to finish strong.

“I usually fade, but this time I was able to keep going,” she said. “I could see the other girls behind me and thought they would catch me, because that’s what usually happens. And in the last 50 I saw her (Flores) a couple of lanes over coming closer, so I really had to pick it up and sprint to the finish. I don’t think I’ve ever been that tired after a race.”

It was the first-ever individual title for Brolin, who qualified for CCS as a part of Gilroy’s relay team. Gilroy’s girls 200 free relay team of Brolin, Harding, Bennett and Ellie Pickford had already hit the CCS cutoff time entering the Championships. Mustangs coach Doug Pickford couldn’t have been prouder of his team’s performance. Harding only started swimming on the team as a junior but quickly made an impact. In two years, Harding went a perfect 8 for 8 in the Championships, winning every Pacific Division relay event she entered along with every individual event.

“Ashley is very athletic and a super eager learner,” Pickford said. “She was a raw talent but you give her a little guidance and it goes a far way. She does her own studying and research on things and is very motivated and wants to be the best she can.”

Harding had never competed in swimming until high school, and it’s a credit to her that she was able to qualify to CCS in each of her only two years of competition. Pickford also had positive things to say about Cazares, whose potential is very high.

“Nate is a raw athlete with tremendous speed,” Pickford said. “He’s a little rough on his starts and turns, but his swimming is so fast that when he perfects the starts and turns, he’ll be on his way to great things. He just needs a great dive and turn and for sure he has 22 seconds in his sights next year for sure.”

But perhaps no one has made the dramatic strides Thompson has in his first and only year of swim competition. A standout water polo player, Thompson decided to play water polo this season after his dad and Pickford convinced him that he needed to be a strong swimmer if he wanted to reach his goal of being an impact water polo player in college.

Though raw, Thompson took to the sport almost immediately and the results started to show as the season wore on.

“I’m not in any way being disparaging, but Adam being in his first-year was absolutely clueless about swimming,” Pickford said. “He would just plow through the water expending a lot of energy, and it was not a pretty thing. To see him refine his skills in 13 short weeks is very impressive. The transformation he’s gone through from being a madman out here to being efficient is great to see and not something many people can do.”

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Emanuel Lee primarily covers sports for Weeklys/NewSVMedia's Los Gatan publication. Twenty years of journalism experience and recipient of several writing awards from the California News Publishers Association. Emanuel has run eight marathons with a PR of 3:13.40, counts himself as a true disciple of Jesus Christ and loves spending time with his wife and their two lovely daughters, Evangeline and Eliza.


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