South Charlotte

Don't get in the pool with Charlotte Catholic

When Charlotte Catholic athletic director Kevin Christmas brought swim coach Brian Gross into his office soon after the school year started, Gross thought it was for some paperwork he had to fill out.

Instead, Christmas gave him a large stone plaque that Gross said weighed about 20 pounds.

Gross had been named the national girls' swim coach of the year by the National High School Coaches Association.

"I was blown away," said Gross, 37. "I don't take credit for what they do in the water ... but I was pretty proud of myself for that one. It's probably the neatest honor that I've ever been able to accomplish as a coach."

Gross' girls' team has won 10 state championships in a row and looks poised to win an 11th this year. The boys won four straight titles from 2005-08 and have finished second at the state meet the last three years.

The coach, who is in his 10th year coaching both teams, has been a large part of the program's growth and success.

When Gross started, he had about 50 kids on the team. The last four years he has had more than 100 swimmers in the program.

"We have a successful program. We have a lot of kids that go to Division I college teams to swim," he said. "I guess it's a 'you-build-it-they-will-come' kind of thing."

The girls' team won six events and broke three state records at last year's state meet, scoring 417 points, 121 more than second-place Marvin Ridge. This year's team should be as good or better after losing just one senior swimmer from the team that competed state meet, Erin Gaeckle, who is now swimming at Tennessee.

The Cougars return sophomore Lauren Rhodes, who set the state record in the 50 freestyle last year; sophomore Maria Sheridan, who won the 100-yard backstroke and was part of two state championship relays; senior Cara Gilligan, who finished second in the 100 backstroke and was on the state champion 200-yard freestyle relay; and senior Ashlyn Koletic, who broke an 18-year-old state record in the 100-yard freestyle. The team also returns sophomores Elsa Welshofer and Nicole Emery and adds three talented freshmen: Nora McCullagh, Madison Demmitt and Megan Almon.

Gross said McCullagh has "superstar talent" and Demmitt and Almon are the only two freshmen that have qualified for the 3A Western regional already this season.

"Their times right now are not state champion times, but they're getting there," he said.

There's so much talent on the girls' team that Gross said he has trouble figuring out what events each girl should swim. McCullagh, Rhodes and Koletic can all swim the 50-yard freestyle in 23 seconds - "In high school, that's insane," said Gross - so they could all swim a relay equally as well.

"It's a puzzle for the girls. When you have that much talent and that much depth at that level it's so hard because you want to spread them out," said Gross. "They could probably swim in anything I put them in."

Gross is quick to add that he's not complaining. It's a nice problem to have.

"I think the girls' team is going to be very strong," he said. "They're going to be a force to reckon with. It's going to be interesting."

The Cougar boys also have a chance to be strong again this season. The boys may not have as many star swimmers as the girls, but they have a lot of depth, which should help them at the state and regional meets. Putting several swimmers in the fifth-eight or ninth-16th position is just as good as a win or runner-up finish in an event, said Gross.

"I think we're going to be right where we left off because we have more depth," he said. "I think the guys have as good a shot as any."

The Cougars lost seniors Ryan Begley and Jonathan Peterson from last year's state runner-up team, which won the 200-yard freestyle relay. Junior Ryan Hall, who was also a part of that relay, is back and Gross said many of his good swimmers from last year started swimming club and getting year-round training.

Junior Matthew Rigali can swim nearly any event, said Gross. Senior Nick Rhodes, Lauren's older brother, is strong in the backstroke and butterfly events, and sophomore Cameron Hoyer is the team's fastest sprinter in the freestyle events. Senior Kevin Kirby is a strong backstroke and individual medley swimmer.

Gross also expects two freshmen, Will Webb and Connor Griffin, to help the team.

Gross said he's looking forward to taking his swimmers to an invitational meet at Winston-Salem State University that is just for freshmen and sophomores. Teams from around the state will compete, including Apex, last year's 4A girls' state champion.

"It will give us a good chance to see how our underclassmen match up with some of the other talent in the state," said Gross.

The Cougars will also compete against Cardinal Gibbons, who has won the last two 3A boys' titles, at the Southeastern Catholic Invitational in Atlanta, an event that Gross started three years ago.

Despite the team's recent success, Gross said he doesn't come in each year expecting to win.

"I tell the kids every year, 'Just because you won last year doesn't mean you're going to win this year,'" he said. "I work them to death here and I train them hard."

When he started coaching Catholic after swimming collegiately at Wright State and coaching club in Charlotte, Gross had no idea what to expect from the program. The success he has had at the school still surprises him.

"The legacy that they have continued has blown me away," he said. "I think the kids don't expect (to win) each year and that's what makes it so sweet when they do win because they go into it, they work hard, they come in as a team and they prove themselves time and time again."