On The Record with Stephanie Ragheb, Girls’ Water Polo Coach at Miami Country Day School

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The pool at Miami Country Day School offers great potential for girls water polo—which Stephanie Ragheb is working to unlock. Photo Courtesy: MCDS Athletics

MIAMI, FL. The high school girls water polo scene in the Magic City presents a mixture of possibilities, with Ransom Everglades, the 2019 Florida state champions, the favorite to win a second-straight FHSAA title—unless Hialeah, the 2018 champs, can overcome a coaching change and significant losses due to graduation.

Against this backdrop, Swimming World spoke last week to Stephanie Ragheb, head girls’ water polo coach for Miami Country Day School. A 2007 MCDS graduate who went on to play Division I polo at Maryland, for the past five years Ragheb has led the Spartan girls in the rough and tumble world of Miami polo. Since taking leadership of a program that she starred for in 2006 and 2007, the Spartans have been on the outside looking in at the state’s water polo title.

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Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

Locally, Miami has been dominated by two public high schools—Hialeah and MAST—and private schools Ransom and Gulliver Prep. MCDS, which finished 15-11 in 2019, beat MAST in a playoff match but then lost to Hialeah in the district regional final.

It’s also been difficult for the MDCS three-sport standout—besides soccer, Ragheb was the swim program’s MVP in 2004 and 2005 and also earned water polo MVP honors in 2006 under head coach John Turnipseed—to get traction on her own campus. The MCDS girls had won six-straight Florida state basketball titles (2014-19)  before losing to MAST after moving up to the Class 3A bracket. Spartan polo has to fight for time with a successful swim program in its own pool.

That—and the fact that her team’s opponents practice year-round—has made moving up in a highly competitive region considerably harder. But, with a core of underclassmen, including sophomore Chloe Cartledge, Ragheb believes things are looking up for the Spartans, especially with Hialeah’s Paolo Dominguez-Castro, the state’s best player the past three years, set to graduate this spring.

[Swimming World Presents “Opportunity Knocks: Paola Dominguez-Castro”]

– When you played here you were accomplished enough to go to a D1 program looking to break into the nation’s top 20.

I committed myself all four years; I swam in the fall, played soccer in the winter, and played water polo in the spring.

During soccer season, I would swim before school to keep my conditioning up from swimming to water polo. And then I played club water polo at FIU (Florida International University) as a high school player. They had adults also, but it was a high school club team. The coach was Charles Pilamunga who is now the Miami Beach Senior High head coach.

I put in a lot of hours. That meant I couldn’t travel for ski week or go on spring break trips. In the summer, I stayed home.

– How do these long holidays impact your polo training?

It’s not an official ski week, but they have a long President’s Day weekend where they have four or five days off. Many of my players and their families love to take advantage of long breaks and holiday weekends to travel.

Spring break falls the week before our district championship game. I can’t have practice because nobody will be here.

– An advantage is you can identify a prospect who starts in kindergarten, might be a strong swimmer, and then by sixth, seventh, eighth grade, you’ll know she has potential to follow your path to D1 ball, where you made it to a good Maryland program—now gone.

The program had one year after I graduated. We were looking at being in the top 20 the year after I left. We had seven huge recruits coming in the next year—then they cut the program.

– That’s what you bring—college experience. But MCDS has an impressive facility—and appears well-equipped if you wanted to be good.

It’s funny you mentioned the facility. If you look at the other private schools in the area, I believe their polo programs flourished because they don’t have to compete with swimming.

Unfortunately, we have to compete with swimming all year round for pool space because we have a small pool. We typically practice after swimming, which is late at night and makes it hard for the younger kids who we want to be molding into great players. Eight o’clock at night, nine o’clock at night is too late for them to be getting home.

During interscholastic season we practice from 6 to 8:30 p.m. every day.

– Do you get some crossover swimmers who can’t make time but want to stay in the water?

Aquatics isn’t a huge sport here. So, the school’s programs are not strong. The club program here is, but the majority of really strong swimmers come from outside of Miami Country Day.

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Ragheb during her playing days at MCDS. Photo Courtesy: S. Ragheb

The truly committed swimmers swim year round, a few girls that swim join my team but again, its hard to convince some kids to join a sport that practices so late at night, when they can join lacrosse or softball that practice at earlier times.

It’s been hard to convince people to get in the pool and play. I have a really good group of girls and I think they have a lot of potential. That—and with Paolo [Dominguez-Castro] graduating from Hialeah next year we’ll be able to do better…

– You’ve been waiting for that!

I’ve been waiting for it for so long! I have been because in order to advance you have to be first in your district. And I haven’t had a chance [to do that].

– Chloe Cartledge, who’s gotten positive attention in Miami, is on your team.

Chloe is a great up and coming player! I am encouraging her to try out at the Olympic development program camps and travel with a team for Junior Olympics.

She’s a sophomore—and that’s another thing. I have 11 girls total: four upperclassmen, the rest are lower classmen. My team is very young. I have two seniors, two juniors, and then the rest are freshmen, sophomores. I also have a seventh grader on my team.

– You’re not in the same bracket with Ransom or Gulliver Prep, even though MCDS is a private school.

They actually just redistricted it this year. We have Alonzo and Tracy Mourning [High School], which is up north, and Krop [High School] which is in our district along with Hialeah and Miami Beach High. We should beat everyone else in the district.

Last year our district had one stronger team, one weaker team plus Hialeah. [But] we’ve been stuck with Hialeah. And you can’t advance unless you finish first.

It’s not that I don’t believe in my team. It’s just we fight for pool space so my girls don’t play year-round like they do. And you know, if you don’t play year-round and commit to the sport, you really don’t have a chance against a team that does.

[On The Record with Carroll Vaughan, Head Coach for Gulliver Prep and Miami Riptides Water Polo]

– Gulliver Prep and Ransom are also private schools. They may not have the same pool configuration as MCDS, but they’re winning championships. What is the critical difference?

I honestly think it’s the commitment of the players and the fact that they’ve demanded their players be there and be on the club and they’ve grown numbers and you develop a reputation and people want to play for that kind of team. There wasn’t too long ago when the Country Day girls were contending for the state championship.

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Paola Dominguez-Castro and Alex Donis. Photo Courtesy: Annie Tworoger

It was right before I graduated college because one of the girls actually ended up coming to Maryland in the final two years of the program.

– Obviously, that’s what you hope to recreate.

I would love to.

– How do you evaluate the Hialeah team and their top player?

Paola’s a very good player, very strong—has been since her freshman year. She had a really strong supporting team with her back then as well. They’ve pretty much been unbeatable until last year when Ransom was able to beat them in the regional championship.

– if you subtract Dominguez-Castro from the equation, how much separates your team and the Thoroughbreds?

They’re probably a stronger team, but without her it would be a manageable game. They have some weaknesses. If we didn’t have to worry about always playing defense and trying to get back, we would have more opportunities to shoot the ball and score! The more you shoot, the more you score.

– What is your assessment of the coaching change at Hialeah? Alex Donis, the first coach to ever get a public school to win a state title on the girl’s side, is no longer there. Now, Ashley Luy, two years removed from being on the team, is looking to guide the Thoroughbreds back to the state title match.

I think she has an advantage in that the players are connected to her. They know how skilled she was as a player and they respect her for it.

But it’s really hard to be a young coach when you’re so close in age. When I started, I was just out of college and I felt like I was too young. They want to be your friend—but you can’t be friends and a coach.

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