If past history is any indication, it would be safe to assume the winner of the 2014 girls’ water polo state title will come from Miami-Dade County.
Miami schools have been that dominant since the sport became sanctioned by the Florida High School Athletic Association in 2005. Only two teams, Gulliver Prep and Ransom Everglades, have been crowned champions. The teams have combined for an astonishing nine girls’ title.
Both teams’ success has been eerily similar. Each has won four consecutive titles before the other has ended their run. Gulliver was the first to reel off a string of victories until Ransom defeated it in the 2009 state quarterfinal. Last season, Ransom was fresh off a four-peat when Gulliver won a grueling one-goal match to secure its first title since 2008.
Entering the 2013 state title match, Ransom seemed like the overwhelming favorite to win a record fifth state title, but a stellar Gulliver defense ended its reign.
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The similarities between both team has not been lost on Gulliver Prep coach Carroll Vaughan.
Vaughan, a long-time presence in South Florida water polo, understands the match could have gone either way.
“Ransom is very, very strong,” she said. “We can play them 10 times, and the outcome will be different every time.”
Although Gulliver has been the state’s traditional water-polo powerhouse, the girls’ program had struggled to get past Ransom recent years. After longtime coach Alex Bennett was abruptly fired, Gulliver was left scrambling for a coach that could match Bennett’s presence. That’s when the Gulliver administration picked Vaughan to replace him.
Vaughan is one of the few local coaches who can attest to the feeling of losing a close match at the hands of Gulliver and Bennett. For many seasons, Gulliver had been a torn in Vaughan’s side. She had never won a state title before joining Gulliver, because as she put it, “[Gulliver] always won.”
It took Vaughan, who previously coached at Coral Reef and Palmetto, several seasons to amass a team that could challenge Ransom again. Gulliver came close to an upset win in 2012, but Ransom achieved a one-goal victory in the first round of the state playoffs.
On the eve of another season, it seems not much has changed in the water polo universe. The powerhouse teams remain the same, with Gulliver Prep likely to be challenged by Ransom Everglades for the top spot in the state. Although Ransom lost several key players to graduation, it returns with an experienced squad that understands how to win high-pressure matches. Gulliver also lost a couple of players to graduation but has the experience to match its rival.
Outside of Dade County, it will be interesting to see how newcomer Orlando Lake Nona will factor into the mix. Lake Nona is a relatively new school that brings back an old foe for Vauhgan and Ransom alike. Former Gulliver coach Alex Bennett is the coach for Lake Nona, and he has put together a strong program in a short amount of time. Lake Nona lost 11-5 to Ransom in last season’s state semifinals.
With the playoffs still several months away, water polo fans can get a preview of the state tournament at the St. Andrew’s School invitational tournament at the end of February. Some of the best girls’ teams in the state have been invited, including Gulliver, Ransom, Lake Nona and Winter Park.
Although winning can make some teams complacent, the Gulliver girls seem to understand winning another title will be tougher than last year. Teams from around the state will be gunning for Gulliver and that fact has not been lost on senior captain Camila Schafer.
“Since we won last year it put a target on our back,” she said. “I think winning states was awesome, but now everyone is going to try to beat us.”