The Miami Gulliver boys’ water polo team spent a large part of the season trying to learn how to finish close games.
On Saturday afternoon, they did it when it counted most.
After dueling with defending champion Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas for most of the match, Gulliver seized control in the final four-plus minutes and wrested the state championship away with a 13-10 victory at Ransom Everglades School in Miami.
Gulliver (24-6) lost five of its six matches this season by one goal including two to Aquinas (23-3).
Never miss a local story.
But this time it was Gulliver that came through in the clutch to secure its third state championship since 2007 and beat Aquinas (23-3) for the second time in the past three seasons in the boys’ final.
“It feels fantastic right now,” Gulliver senior Jonathan Chow said. “Ever since my freshman year, I dreamed of being the senior captain on a state championship team. We played Aquinas a couple of times so it was a fantastic game and we were able to outplay them.”
Chow, a member of the USA Junior National team, led Gulliver with five goals and gave it the lead with 3:33 left in the fourth quarter.
Sophomore Felipe Tilkian and junior Jan Strusinski followed with a goal in each in the final two minutes, and junior goalkeeper Brett Gilbert made a couple of key stops to seal the victory.
“I told Jonathan before the game started ‘You’re a top player in the country,” Gulliver coach Carroll Vaughan said. “Let everyone here know it. Eric is a great player and he gets a lot of press and he deserves it. But Jonathan is a great player too and I’m just thrilled he showed everybody.”
Gulliver never trailed in the match.
Aquinas, however, tied it five times with the final tying goal from star attacker Eric Goldenberg coming with 4:21 left in the fourth quarter to knot the game at 10.
“We came back and we got momentum of the game, but there was a key moment where we did not convert on a couple of opportunities at that point, and they did,” Aquinas coach Michael Goldenberg said. “I told the boys last night and this morning, the team that’s going to make the least mistakes is going to win.”
Goldenberg scored a team-high four goals while junior Gal Ben Kiki and senior Logan Vavarek each had two.
But Gulliver’s defensive efforts kept the trio off the scoreboard in the closing moments of the game.
“Obviously we’re disappointed,” Goldenberg said. “We didn’t play well. The other team did a better job than us on offense. You have to give credit to Gulliver. They played very hard. It was anybody’s game to take, but it is what it is.”
Chow and Tilkian also scored in succession to end the first half and help Gulliver take a 5-3 halftime lead.
After taking a 7-4 lead with 4:11 to play in the third, Aquinas cut it to 7-6 on goals by Goldenberg and Kiki and eventually tied the game at 9 with 4:57 left in the fourth on a goal by junior Phillip Arrigo.
But each time Aquinas had a chance to take a lead, Gulliver answered.
“Our team played like a team and played team defense,” Vaughan said. “Even through mistakes, they never got down on each other and stayed together. We loved a good challenge and we were glad to have won it playing the strongest team and their strongest.”