ANDRE FERNANDEZ | MIAMI HERALD
Originally published April 15, 2023, 3:59 PM
With his players already splashing the water, hooting and hollering, St. Thomas Aquinas boys’ water polo coach Michael Goldenberg took his sandals off, took a breath and dove into the pool at Belen Jesuit on Saturday afternoon.
As Goldenberg emerged from the water, he tilted his head back to bask in the sunshine for a brief moment and then, surrounded in a huddle of Raiders players, joined the chant that echoed across the pool deck.
This was a dive Goldenberg and the rest of Aquinas had been forced to wait a decade to take.
And as frustrating as the drought was for the Raiders, their dramatic 14-12 victory over the host Wolverines tasted that much sweeter after they emerged from the pool as state champions for the first time since 2013.
It was the second state title for Aquinas’ boys since the sport became sanctioned by the Florida High School Athletic Association in 2005. The Raiders had come up short in the state final on three prior occasions since that 2013 championship including twice against Belen.
“It’s amazing,” said Goldenberg as he caught his breath after the celebration. “I’m so proud of these kids. This was a special group, all of them, even the kids on the bench who didn’t get into the pool that much. It was such a supportive group.”
Belen (21-2-1) and St. Thomas (28-2-1) entered this weekend’s state meet ranked No. 1 and 2 in the state respectively. The teams met for the fourth time in the state finals – the most for any two schools since 2005 with Belen having won two of the previous three such meetings.
The teams also met twice in the regular season with one game ending in a 10-10 tie and Belen prevailing in the other.
Both teams delivered as neither side led by more than three goals at any point in the match. The Wolverines held that advantage when they opened the second half with a goal by Lucas Levy to take a 9-6 lead. But the Raiders’ defense shut down Belen for the next five minutes and tied the match on goals by Holden Harkins, Ayden Castillo and Tony Vlasic.
After Nicholas Santarsiero evened the match at 10 early in the fourth quarter and the teams traded penalty scores, Dylan Chaimowicz and Castillo connected on back-to-back goals to stretch their advantage to 13-11 with two minutes left.
“It’s awesome and all the hard work we put in has paid off now,” Castillo said. “All of us had to stay focused late and get this done.”
After Hector Santaella pulled Belen to within one, Samuel Collingwood lobbed home a shot from deep to put Aquinas back up 14-12.
Aquinas goalie Luke Salem sealed the game with a huge penalty shot save with 36 seconds left when he blocked a pinpoint shot from Juan Franco.
“For us to convert the opportunities we had, that’s what it came down to and we knew it would be the team who made the least mistakes,” Goldenberg said.
The Wolverines came up short in their bid to win back-to-back state titles for the second time in school history and what would have been their fifth championship overall.
Belen graduates six seniors, but returns most of its core players, which should give it a strong chance to make another run next season.