Trouble in Polo Paradise: Florida Girls’ Water Polo Has Referee Problems

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A picture tells it all: Hialeah's Alex Donis, a referee, and Thoroughbreds' star Paola Dominguez-Castro. Photo Courtesy: Annie Tworoger, 3rd & Ocean

A shaky, uneven video clip from last month’s 2019 Florida Girl’s Water Polo Tournament has the potential for conspiracy gone wild. A bad call, irate parents, and a disputed outcome from Hialeah High School’s 9-8 loss to arch-rival Ransom Everglades—all in slo-mo—are enough to antagonize even the most level-headed fans.

If this were an isolated incident for Florida’s youth polo, it might easily be dismissed. Taken in combination with controversy from last year’s playoffs, when Winter Park’s overtime victory against Lake Mary in a regional semifinal was overturned upon review, one conclusion looms large: the Florida High School Athletic Association has a significant problem with its water polo officials.

Hialeah wonders, bias or incompetence?

Coming into a regional playoff game in South Florida, the defending state champion Hialeah Thoroughbreds were even more dominant in 2019, reeling off 18 straight victories. Led by Paola Dominguez-Castro’s 129 goals and Alejandra Aranguren’s even 100, head coach Alex Donis’ squad was the team to beat in the Florida State High Athletic Association playoffs. The T-Breds unquestionably had a target on their collective back due to last year’s achievement, when they became the only public school to win a girls’ title in the 12-year history of the tournament.

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A pensive Thoroughbred. Photo Courtesy: Annie Tworoger, 3rd & Ocean

One prominent opponent was Ransom Everglades. The state’s dominant program when Olympian Ashleigh Johnson was in the Raiders’ cage, head coach Eric Lefebvre’s squad were certainly anticipating their meeting against their cross-city rivals. A 17-7 loss in last year’s regional final added fuel to the intensity of this year’s match. That, and the high stakes: the winner would advance to the semis, the loser would go home.

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

The questionable sequence started at the 3:54 mark of the fourth quarter, when an exclusion was called on Dominguez-Castro. Although that seemed a phantom call, it’s what happened next that was particularly egregious—and what proved fatal to Hialeah’s title hopes. As Dominguez-Castro was swimming off, with her coach gesturing to his team, Ransom’s Grace Waibel picked up the ball approximately six meters from the T-Breds’ goal. As the defense was setting up in a man-down defense—that is, covering all attackers except the ball handler—Waibel tentatively swam in, wound up and shot past Alicia Krasner, the surprised Hialeah goalie.

The reason for Krasner’s confusion? The rules clearly state that the offensive player who possesses the ball immediately after an exclusion is not allowed to shoot; she is required to pass to another attacker; then—and only then—may a goal be scored.

This was an egregious non-call because it overlooked a violation of one of the sport’s fundamental rules. The fact that neither referee caught it should have drawn immediate protest from the Hialeah bench—and a stoppage of play. That it did not was due to the confusion of the moment; but it begs the question, even with multiple video cameras in place, would the referees have been equipped to review the play?

Donis, in an email sent after the match, focused his ire on the referees’ inexperience—and opened up the can of worms of how to reverse a bad in-game decision.

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Hialeah goalie Alicia Krasner in action. Photo Courtesy: Tom Krasner

“It is very difficult and unjust to see a game’s outcome decided by someone other than the players in the game,” he wrote. “There needs to be a better way [to] revise referee error. Just to say no matter what mistake is made the game will not be replayed is obsolete.

“Especially when the issues are reoccurring ones with no change in sight,” he added for emphasis.

Parents and players alike were understandably crushed to have their season dashed by a blown call. In a transcript of comments from various Hialeah parents, Marisol Barriga-Krasner—whose daughter is the Hialeah goalie—summed up the response from the stands that day.

“The day of the game, one mother got extremely angry for what was happening,” she wrote in an email. “The girls were so sad and frustrated. Some were crying because it was impossible to accept what was happening.

“The championship was literally stolen in front of the eyes of everyone.”

No protest was made immediately at the moment of the blown call—it was filed days after the match was over. That, and the fact that Hialeah had more than four minutes left in the match to get the equalizer, suggest it will be impossible to reverse what is clearly (it’s in the video!) a monumental blunder by the referees.

Not the first time…

If anyone should know just how controversial a referee’s decision can be, it’s Barry Creighton, Winter Park High School’s boy’s and girl’s coach. In 2018, his Wildcats won a regional playoff match against Lake Mary. Only, they didn’t. In the aftermath of a 7-6 triple overtime decision, it was revealed that the referees had applied the wrong overtime rules. Almost inexplicably, the FHSAA reversed the outcome, deciding in a unanimous vote that a sudden-death format should have been applied. The Rams were awarded a 5-4 win, and the provocative decision became a cause célèbre for Winter Park parents.

[On The Record with Barry Creighton, Winter Park Head Water Polo Coach]

“It’s in the rulebook that referees’ decisions are final…and they miss things.” Creighton said in a recent interview. “[What] happened to Hialeah, where there was a foul and that girl swam down the pool and shot it, [that] happened in one of our games. My assistant coach noticed it—I didn’t notice it at the time, I was worried about something else. It happened and you play on.”

“Last year with our girls and that decision, I thought: Holy smokes! We were on TV news and columnists [were writing] about high school water polo,” Creighton said. “When does that happen? Never. All because of some crazy decision. [It was] more attention than we’d get if it we’d won the state championship.”

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Winter Park gets stuffed in 2018. Photo Courtesy: Winter Park HS Athletics

The craziness around that decision, with lawyers and hearings, culminating in a 9-0 decision in favor of overturning a referee’s decision in the pool, surprisingly did not chasten the FHSAA. But after this latest snafu, and an uproar of protest by Hialeah fans, the overseer of high school sports in Florida admitted there’s work to be done to improve the quality of play.

In a statement released last month, Corey Sobers, FHSAA Assistant Director of Athletics, looked to damage control regarding how the Hialeah vs. Ransom match was officiated.

“There is no benefit to the FHSAA to assign anything less than the best officials available for the games that are most important,” Sobers’ statement said. “These officials were assigned after recommendations from the officials’ associations, in addition to evaluations and exam scores.”

Sobers went on to say that there are consequences for referees whose mistakes are caught—clearly, not such an easy task—saying that it will affect playoff assignments in following years, or even result in heavy fines. However, he closed his comments with a remark that will be cold comfort to Hialeah parents who were looking forward to another state title this year.

“There is a statewide officiating crisis in terms of there being a shortage, so we encourage anyone interested to sign up at BecomeAnOfficial.org.”

Is there a solution out there?!?

Unfortunately, this response is in direct opposition to what Alex Donis believes to be the core issue for high school polo in his state—a lack of experienced officials.

“There needs to be something done about the learning curve of the referees,” he wrote. “Most of them officiate two months a year and that’s it. The top players and coaches play year-round. It’s not fair that the athletes put in all the work and the officials don’t do anything to get better and still get paid.”

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Barry Creighton: Photo Courtesy: Winter Park HS Athletics

In the wake of these high-profile controversies, Creighton—who’s been coaching boys’ and girls’ polo at Winter Park for a quarter century—understands that this is a pivotal moment.

“I don’t think it’s a good look for the sport,” he said of the coverage if his team’s loss last year. “What’s going on with water polo? People don’t know what it is to begin with, and then you only hear negative things about it.”

Then, in a nod to the reality of any athletic endeavor, he added, “If you look really closely you can always find missed calls.”

[On Deck With Jack Horton, Referee, Coach, Photographer and Life-Long Polo Enthusiast]

Again, cold comfort for the girls and their families, who strongly feel that something was taken from them. Marisol Barriga-Krasner is quite clear—and defiant—in her takeaway from the only blemish on what otherwise would have been a sparkling Hialeah record.

“Our girls never lost that game,” she wrote. “Neither [did] Ransom Everglade win it. The referee stole it.”

2 comments

  1. avatar

    Blown calls are part of sports and the refs often impact games. In fact, the reason the Hialeah girls were in the game in question was largely because the refs had kicked-out two of Ransom’s best players. Ironically, a couple years ago, Hialeah’s two best players played for Ransom’s club team, at tournament at South Broward High School, when the police had to be called to remove the fathers of the two Hialeah girls for their abuse of the refs.

  2. avatar

    Agreed. Winter Park has a legitimate argument, Hialeah not so much.