It’s impossible to talk about high school girls swimming in North Carolina without first talking about Charlotte Catholic.
The Cougars have dominated swimming programs from across the state on their way to the top, and once they got there, they haven’t budged. Charlotte Catholic has claimed the last 12 consecutive state championships spanning the 1A, 2A and 3A levels.
It’s a prestigious legacy unlike any other and coach Brian Gross, who has seen firsthand the success of Catholic swimming since the new millennium, said it’s hard to explain exactly where the overwhelming amount of talent comes from.
“I don’t know,” he said, laughing. “I just try to make it fun for the kids. When I first started 12 years ago, I thought about things that would pull my interest and entertain me if I were in high school, and we started generating interest in the program that way. We started seeing in the ranks of classes, talent coming up and more talent coming up. It’s talent that has always been there, it just hadn’t cycled through yet.
“It really is unbelievable, the talent that comes in here. I have no control over that. We don’t recruit. We don’t solicit. They just come.”
Last year, in what has been considered the most dominating performance at the 3A level, the Cougars wiped out their competitors and took home the gold, scoring 469 points and besting second-place Marvin Ridge by an unheard of 211 points.
But things will look slightly different this season for Catholic, who has since moved up to a 4A classification, putting them in the same ranks as Hough, the two-time defending 4A champions, and a hodgepodge of other schools loaded with talent.
Even with the pressure of competing in the stacked 4A ranking, Gross said that, not only is he excited for the challenge, but he isn’t looking to change his coaching technique or prepare any differently than he has in prior years.
“I’m not the type of coach that goes out and says, ‘OK, I’m going to build a strategy at the beginning of the year, and Hough has this, Providence has this, Chapel Hill has this,’” Gross said. “I just come in and assess the kids I have and focus on the talent that we bring to the table and what we can do in the pool. The change to 4A will be a challenge because of the talent in those bigger schools, but it’s going to put more pressure on the kids to strive to be better than we ever have been. It’s going to raise their intensity and that’s what they want.”
To continue their dominating legacy against their toughest competition to date, the Cougars will look to their senior weapons – arguably the most talented fivesome of swimmers in the state – each of whom recently committed to swim for major universities across the country.
Nicole Emery (Notre Dame), Elsa Welshofer (Princeton), Christine Sullivan (Villanova), Lauren Rhodes (N.C. State) and Maria Sheridan (Duke) have helped continue the excellence of Catholic swimming for the last four years, but it’s the countless hours outside of Cougar swimming that’s catapulted them to the top of the state rankings.
They’re used to waking up before dawn to practice with their Swim MAC team at 5 a.m., only to rush back to club practice for two more hours after school and still make it to their Catholic meet on time at 6 p.m. They spend about as much time in the water as they do on land, and with that amount of dedication, it’s easy to see why they’re among the best in the state.
Emery won the 200 Individual Medley title at the 3A state meet last season with an All-American time of 2 minutes, 2.01 seconds and Welshofer won the 100-meter butterfly, setting an all-classification record of 54.69 seconds.
Rhodes took the gold for the 100 freestyle (50.02) and 200 freestyle, shattering her own personal record by two seconds with a time of 1:47.98, while teammate Sheridan swam on the 200 freestyle and 200 medley state champion relay teams, setting records in both races, and took the silver in the 50 freestyle and 100 butterfly, finishing both times behind Catholic teammates. Sullivan was the state runner-up for the 500 freestyle, where she also is the Catholic record holder (4:59.12).
The talent doesn’t end with the five senior superstars though – they’ve got the help of junior Nora McCullagh, who became the first North Carolinian in high school history to finish the 50 free in under 23 seconds, with a record time of 22.92 at last year’s 3A state meet.
But even with their individual accolades continuing to pile up as their season progresses, the seniors remain focused on the Catholic team and their responsibility to continue the success of an already astounding program.
“I’ve never seen a team before in any sport with so much team spirit,” Rhodes said. “We all genuinely want the best for each other and we’re always cheering each other on. We have fun together and that’s what’s important to help us be successful.”
“Every year at states, it’s always different, but we always go in with the same goal of a team win,” Emery added. “It’s special every single year because we never know what’s going to happen. Yeah, swimming is an individual sport, but at states it’s such a team effort.”
As the seniors prepare to wrap up their last year at Catholic and transition to the collegiate level, they’re looking forward to the challenge of their new conference, even though it means competing alongside the likes of Providence and Ardrey Kell, and later, Hough.
“There’s definitely more pressure on us because we know it’s going to be a bigger challenge than anything we’ve had before at this level,” Sheridan said. “But we know that our team has a lot of depth and that we train hard and have the spirit. We’re going into this season with the same attitude that we do every year in trying to do our best. We aren’t saying, ‘Oh we’re going to go in and kill them.’ That’s not us. But we do know we’re a good team and have the talent to win at any level.”
“It’s exciting, the transition to 4A, because we’re going to be getting a lot more competition and that’s something we’re ready for, especially getting ready to swim in college,” Sullivan added. “We’re looking to keep the tradition going.”
Gross knows that with each championship, the tradition becomes even further embedded into the expectations set for Catholic swimming. But the coach said, regardless of the way this season progresses, he’s already thrilled with his exceptional group of seniors.
“They’re talented because of the work they do outside of Catholic,” he said. “They’re natural-born athletes. They’ve worked so hard – I can’t even describe how hard they’ve worked. They’re swimming seven days a week for hours at a time and the amount of dedication they have, well, that speaks for itself.”