Scheck Hillel, a tiny Jewish school in North Miami Beach with a dual curriculum of English and Hebrew, has a recorded message that greets callers with a friendly “Shalom!”
On the other end of town, in southwest Dade, you’ll find Belen Jesuit, an all-boys Catholic school with roots stretching back nearly 200 years to its origins in Cuba.
In the middle of Miami is Ransom Everglades, a Coconut Grove historic landmark that was founded in 1903. Ransom, which became co-ed in 1974, has an idyllic on-the-water setting and a yearly tuition of $34,000 — the cost for Belen and Hillel combined.
These vastly different schools recently became historically connected when they won their first boys’ soccer state championships.
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Belen (30-0-2) won in Class 4A, Ransom (24-4) took the 2A title and Hillel (19-0-1) prevailed in 1A. This is the first time in history that three Miami-Dade boys’ soccer teams have won state titles in the same year.
Here’s a closer look at how they got there:
Coach Tanger Mendonca, a 58-year-old native of Rio de Janeiro who played pro soccer for 16 years in Brazil and Venezuela, finally directed a title run in his ninth season at Belen. He did it with the help of star forward Frankie de la Camara, who shattered the school record with 59 goals. The senior is second in Miami-Dade history in single-season scoring.
But it wasn’t just de la Camara. This was a dominant Wolverines team as evidenced by their No. 8 national ranking. After being eliminated in overtime or a shootout in each of de la Camara’s first three years, Belen’s core group of nine fourth-year-varsity seniors pulverized the competition.
The Wolverines beat their five state-playoff opponents by a combined score of 20-4, including 5-2 in the final.
Mendonca, who speaks heavily accented English, communicates to his players — nearly all of whom speak Spanish — with a combination of Portuguese, Spanish, English and hand signals/body language.
“Sports has a universal language,” said Belen athletic director Carlos Barquin, who hired Mendonca and now has him oversee the school’s five soccer teams from grades six through 12. “He teaches the game.”
De la Camara said Mendonca “butchers certain words” such as focus, but that is of little concern to the Belen kids.
“He does a lot of showing,” de la Camara said. “Even the couple of kids on our team who don’t speak Spanish understand him. It’s a pleasure to play for Tanger — he treats everyone like his own son.”
Mendonca’s sideline demeanor can best be described as manic.
He waves his arms and flings off his sports coat. He chastises a player one minute and then builds him back up with a pat on the back.
“He used to be a lot worse — if you can wrap your head around that,” de la Camara said when asked about Mendoca’s excitable nature. “He calmed down a lot this year. He trusted us more.”
Mendonca said his team has improved every year since he arrived at Belen, and he said he got better, too.
“I have a deeper understanding of how to manage a high school team,” Mendonca said in Portuguese. “We’ve had good teams in the past, but this year we were more together and more balanced. We played with passion and personality.”
“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”
Aristotle said that more than 2,300 years ago, but Ransom coach Dave Villano feels it today.
Villano, 54, was a senior soccer standout at Ransom when the Raiders made it to the 3A state final, losing 2-0 to Orlando’s Bishop Moore.
Ransom hadn’t returned to a state final until … this year, Villano’s 29th season as the Raiders’ head coach. Ransom ended the season on a 12-game win streak, outscoring its opponents 52-5 during that stretch.
“There really isn’t just one reason why we won this year,” Villano said. “We were fitter — that made a difference. We moved some players around tactically. But mostly this was a culmination of a four-year process with the kids who are now seniors.”
Here’s some irony: That 1979 Ransom team also featured a junior starter named Jay Flipse, who went on to become one of the top coaches in the area, winning two state titles with Killian and two more at Sunset.
And that 1979 team beat Belen 3-2 in a classic that went a then-record eight overtimes, each lasting five minutes. On that Belen squad was Frank de la Camara, the father of the current Wolverines star.
Belen got revenge, of sorts, beating Ransom 1-0 in a non-district game early this past season.
The current Ransom team was led by 6-5 junior forward Michael Colonna, who scored 24 goals despite being a part-time soccer player. His main sport is volleyball, and he also plays football.
“Ransom is a throwback to the days when kids were multi-sport athletes,” Villano said.
That’s the case for several Ransom soccer players, including Jackson Mihm (track), Matias Junghahn (swimming) and Antonio Ferrer (football kicker).
In addition, many of Ransom’s players will go to college for academics only, a list that includes Antoine Esber (Duke) and Andrew Geraghty (Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business).
But even with all that focus on academics and other sports, Villano was able to have his team mesh.
“Winning a state title didn’t make Dave an excellent coach — he already was one,” Flipse said. “But it allowed him to put a period at the end of this journey. More than a period, he put an exclamation point.”
Villano is much calmer on the sidelines than Mendonca, but he does have his moments.
“He’s not afraid to let you know if you mess up,” Colonna said. “For the first half of this season, he started every halftime speech by saying: ‘That was the worst half of Ransom soccer I’ve ever seen.’ He’s big on saying ‘Ransom soccer.’ ”
Hillel, founded in 1973, had never been past the regional semifinals — in any sport — until the boys’ soccer team lost in the 2013 state final.
The Lions lost by one goal in 2013 and fell in overtime of a 2014 state semifinal before this year’s breakthrough.
According to Hillel’s website, this title was “likely the first win of its kind for a Jewish school in the nation.”
Ben Magidson, Hillel’s 35-year-old coach, said his job when he took over seven years ago was simple.
“We had talent,” he said. “We just needed someone to organize them.”
The Hillel players, most of whom have their roots in Argentina and other Latin American countries, have rallied around Magidson, an ex-Gulliver Prep midfielder who played Division III soccer at Albright College before serving the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and Iraq. He enlisted right after 9/11.
Magidson has helped inspire players such as Netty Silberman, a senior who led the team with 42 goals.
“We had a group of five seniors who really took charge of the team — they were the best group of leaders I’ve ever had,” Magidson said. “The entire team listened to the coaching staff.”
Magidson didn’t just have their attention, he also had good fortune finally on his side. After getting eliminated by the slimmest of margins — one goal, overtime and penalty kicks — in the past three years, this time the Lions prevailed in a shootout.
Hillel beat defending champion Maitland Orangewood Christian 5-4 in a shootout after neither team could score in regulation or overtime. Senior Salo Lapco had the winning kick, and senior goalie Alan Landau had the winning save with a dive to his right.
“Winning state is a feeling I will never forget in my life,” Silberman said. “None of this would have been possible without [Magidson] — no chance. Before the season, he spoke to the captains, and he told us that this was the year we win state. He displayed confidence in us, and we showed that to our teammates.”