By MICHAEL ALEXANDER, Staff Photographer | Published October 20, 2016
CUMMING—St. Pius X held off a late comeback by the Southern Crescent Aquatic Team of Peachtree City to win 4-3 in the 2016 Georgia High School Water Polo Association state championship at the Cumming Aquatic Center Oct. 9.
It was the team’s fifth championship since 2007 and its first since 2012. The St. Pius High School team competes as a club sport in the league against 22 other teams and has A, B and C teams.
In its first round match Oct. 8, St. Pius took on the 16th-seed Wheeler High School Wildcats B-team. St. Pius cruised to a 17-1 win. Later that day they played the Wildcats’ eighth-seeded A-team. St. Pius dominated from the outset. They held a 16-0 lead at halftime and went on to win 23-1.
In St. Pius’ semifinal match Oct. 9 the team faced three-time defending champions, the Blue Devils of Norcross. If there was one team that was on the minds of St. Pius players, it was the Blue Devils. In 2013 they defeated St. Pius in the finals 7-5. In 2014 and 2015 the Blue Devils eliminated St. Pius in the semifinal match. Even Myles Williams, a California native who joined the SPX team last year, knew the stakes.
“Last year’s loss to the Blue Devils had not been forgotten by the team,” said Williams. Winning the championship was certainly the team’s goal, but as Williams put it, “Beating the Blue Devils would give us an equal degree of satisfaction.”
At the end of the semifinal match, St. Pius had defeated its nemesis 12-4. Junior center forward Connor McGee scored four goals in the victory.
“It was a collective team effort,” said McGee. “We were able to stretch our lead in the second half because we adapted to their style of play and exploited their weaknesses.”
Senior captain Robert Benoit, who plays on the team with his 17-year-old twin sister, Carolina, praised head coach Michael Peters and assistant coach Father Dan Rogaczewski, parochial vicar at All Saints Church, Dunwoody, for their training and preparation.
“In the second half, our team’s conditioning kicked in and eventually we were able to wear them down,” said Benoit.
The final pitted St. Pius against the number two seed, Southern Crescent. Although St. Pius had outscored its opponents 52-6 in the first three games, the championship match would be a different scenario. Junior attacker Matthew Halbig scored St. Pius’ first-period goal, but with 1:59 remaining in the period Southern Crescent tied the score. It remained tied until first-year player and St. Louis native Anton Gudiswitz broke it with 5:07 left in the second period. Nearly four minutes later senior captain Jordan Chatfield scored to extend the lead to 3-1, which is where things stood at halftime.
With 4:38 remaining in the third period, Benoit, a center forward, scored what would turn out to be the team’s final and winning goal. Southern Crescent scored two fourth-period goals, the last one coming with just 28 seconds left on the clock. However, it was the St. Pius defense that won the day.
Deep bench, defense carried the day
“I told my kids at the half that if we continue to play great defense like we were playing and score a couple more goals that we would win the championship,” said coach Peters. “I’ve preached every year as their coach that defense wins championships and our dominant defense was on display all year and especially in the championship game.”
When you bring up defense, you have to mention the effort of senior goalkeeper Andres Garcia. He had 15 saves in the championship game and averaged that amount or more throughout the season. One of two family members competing in water polo, Andres started in 2012 as an eighth-grader on the St. Pius B team. His brother, Rafael, was a center forward on the 2012 championship A team. Andres first played goalie as a freshman on the 2013 A team with his brother, a senior.
“I had witnessed the taste of championship victory in 2012, so I wanted to win with my brother in 2013,” said Andres.
Of course, the Norcross Blue Devils prevented that from happening. Winning this year’s championship was a great feeling for Andres, but he said beating the Blue Devils in the semifinal made it that much better.
“Even though I didn’t share a championship with my brother, we each won championships,” Andres said.
Not only did St. Pius win the championship, they finished the season with a perfect 15-0 record, a feat they also accomplished in 2010.
Peters, who just completed his fifth season as the St. Pius coach, said he would rank this team as the best one he has coached.
“We had great starters, but what really made us dominant is that any one of our bench players could get subbed in and there would be zero drop off in skill or talent,” said Peters. “Any one of my bench guys would be one of the best players on any other team in Georgia. Also, what really made this team special is all of the dedication and hard work that these guys put in to getting better everyday all year.”