As sixth-graders just starting in Belen Jesuit’s water polo program, Ryan Guso and Santiago Nunez each remembered what it was like to be a part of the school’s only other state championship water polo team.
After a six-year wait, the two Belen stars, now seniors, recaptured the feeling by leading the Wolverines to another.
Guso scored a game-high six goals and Nunez had two to lead Belen to a 14-9 win over Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas on Saturday afternoon at Ransom Everglades.
It was Belen’s first state championship since 2009 in what was its third state finals appearance.
“This all started seven years ago when me and Ryan said ‘let’s play water polo and make a name for ourselves at this school,’ ” Nunez said. “It was a mountain to climb but we knew there would be obstacles. It was fitting that it would be Aquinas in the final. As a competitor, that’s what you look forward to, and you want to beat the best.”
For Belen (26-1), it was also the end of a two-year wait for payback against an Aquinas team that defeated it for the 2013 state title.
The Raiders (25-2) captured their lone state title that season, and made their fourth consecutive appearance in the final and were led by senior Eric Goldenberg and sophomore Parker Strickman, who each had four goals.
“Getting here four finals in a row is an accomplishment, but it’s not everything,” St. Thomas coach Michael Goldenberg said. “The experience in this atmosphere playing under pressure and being yelled at by rude fans is an experience all its own and will help these kids.”
Belen’s and St. Thomas’ only losses during the season came against each other.
When both teams were placed on opposite sides of the championship bracket, Nunez said it gave Belen added motivation.
“I love this and I wouldn’t want to end it any other way,” Guso said. “We became a cohesive unit throughout the season and this time we played as a team.”
After both teams traded goals for most of the first quarter, Belen secured control of the match by scoring five unanswered to take an 8-3 lead with two minutes to go in the second. Guso keyed the run with three of the five goals, and Pablo Kurzan and Alexander Alepuz scored the first two.
Aquinas battled back as Goldenberg provided scoring and assists to help it draw within two goals first at 10-8 and later at 11-9 with 53 seconds left in the third quarter.
But Belen’s defense kept Aquinas continually misfiring in the fourth quarter as the Raiders went scoreless in the final period.
“We had opportunities and we just didn’t convert on them,” Michael Goldenberg said. “There’s not much else to say.”
Belen’s journey was rewarding for the extra effort it took a squad that needed to find alternate sites to practice without a regulation-size pool on campus.
Belen coach Jimmy Aguilera expressed his pride in his players and gratitude for the people involved in supporting the team, including former Belen coach Julio Lopez, who passed away from cancer in 2011. Lopez was influential in restarting the water polo program at the school.
An emotional Aguilera — who was part of a world championship team while coaching in Cuba before coming to Miami and coaching Belen the past four seasons — said this was even more special.
“These kids sacrificed every day and we made finding a way to win this game a goal each and every day,” Aguilera said. “We dedicate this win to all the people like Lopez and all our parents for supporting this team.”