Raiders build winning program

02/21/2014 12:01 AM

02/21/2014 12:37 AM

Although Miami-Dade County has enjoyed years of success in high school water polo, Broward County has struggled to mirror the triumphs.

Through the years, Miami-Dade has consistently produced championship teams that have won at the expense of Broward squads. Although that dynamic is still true on the girls’ side of the bracket, a change is slowly happening on the boys’ side.

After several failed attempts, upstart St. Thomas Aquinas became the first Broward team to win a boys’ state title since 2006. The Raiders defeated Miami’s Belen Jesuit 13-10 in the 2013 state final. The final was a contentious affair between the squads that featured a tug-of-war match that neither team wanted to let slip away. So intense was the game that a brief skirmish broke out during the awards ceremony.

The clash, which amounted to nothing more than a few shoves, was the culmination of a physical game that could arguably go down as one of the best matches in state tournament history.

After the teams were separated and apologizes were passed around, a beaming St. Thomas Aquinas coach Michael Goldenberg was thrown into the pool by his players, a tradition akin to dumping the Gatorade cooler on a winning football coach.

Making the victory doubly sweet for Goldenberg was sharing the experience with his son, Eric. The younger Goldenberg, who was selected as the 2013 Miami Herald water polo Player of the Year, had a game-high eight goals against the Wolverines.

Although St. Thomas lost some key starters to graduation, the Raiders return with a core group of players who have experience playing deep into the playoffs.

“We always approach any game to win,” the older Goldenberg said. “The first half of the season we’re going to be testing different players to see how they fit in.”

The ability to make do with what they have is one of the reasons St. Thomas has been able to be so successful in a relatively short amount of time.

Building a winning program has been Goldenberg’s plan from Day One, but the process has been difficult. Unlike more established programs, St. Thomas has had to deal with issues traditional powerhouses have been able to avoid. The Raiders are relatively new to water polo, fielding their first team in 2008 when students petitioned the administration to start a boys’ squad.

Before becoming assigned to a district, the first-year of St. Thomas boys’ team existence they were recognized as a club team. With turnout low the first season, St. Thomas had to do some creative maneuvering just to compete with more experienced clubs

“It was an up-and-down ride,” Goldenberg said. “From Year One, we had some quality players. We were just not deep enough.”

After a year as a club, St. Thomas was assigned to a district, which meant they could advance to the postseason. The first full season was a challenge for Goldenberg, but his young team showed promise. That year, St. Thomas advanced to the state tournament but ultimately lost in a blowout to St. Andrews in the quarterfinals.

Although the defeat was demoralizing, advancing to the state tournament created a buzz about the team at the school. The following season, more players began to tryout for a spot on the team.

With added depth, St. Thomas became a contender. In 2012, the team made it to the state final for the first time but lost a close match to Miami Gulliver Prep.

Goldenberg credits the team’s disappointing losses as the catalyst for their 2013 state title.

“The biggest different between winning states and losing at finals was experience,” he said. “How to play on a championship team. You need to know when to add more intensity, and when to add more mental toughness. There are a lot of things involved.”

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