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Water polo youths make big splash in Sunshine State Games

For Plantation's Anna Smith-Johnson, the splashes are entirely different in water polo.

The former competitive diver has spent the past eight years enjoying a new sport — one that involves making a splash in the pool.

Smith-Johnson, 17, was one of 800 participants in the recent Sunshine State Games Water Polo Championships at the Coral Springs Aquatic Complex. The event also doubled as the Southeast Zone Championships.

The St. Thomas Aquinas High School senior played for an 18-under division girls' team in the tournament. Although she liked to dive, Smith-Johnson gave up the sport at age 6 after hitting the diving board with her shoulder.

"It scared me," said Smith-Johnson, who opted for water polo after watching a team practice. "(Water polo) looked like fun, so I decided to give it a try."

Angela Romero, a 17-year-old resident of Coral Springs and senior at Deerfield Beach High School, was also a member of the 18-under squad and was thrilled to join forces with some standout teammates.

"(Smith-Johnson and Haley Hill) are the best players on their high school teams, so to come into this tournament and play on the same team with them makes it so much better," Romero said. "We played well; there is a lot of good experience on this team."

The squad was composed of players from the Coral Springs Water Polo Club and the relatively new Flying Bulldogs Water Polo Club. There was also a 16-under division team representing those clubs at the Games.

Trying to get into sync was a challenge since there were only two practices before the Games. Despite this, the 18-under contingent finished in fourth place after dropping a hard-fought 8-7 decision to the St. Andrew's Scots in the bronze medal game.

High school coaches Chris Bloese (South Broward), Gary Besbris (St. Thomas Aquinas) and Debbie Cavanaugh (Fort Lauderdale) put the 18-under squad together on short notice.

"Some of our girls had never played together until this weekend," Bloese said. "I think our primary goal was to get them more experience in water polo and expand their knowledge and skills."

The event featured 58 teams from around the state, as well as squads from Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Peru and Colombia.

As such, Besbris said it made sense to join forces with the Fort Lauderdale-based Flying Bulldogs program. The Coral Springs Water Polo Club has been associated with USA Water Polo for three years.

Another local program involved in the water polo competition was the South Florida Water Polo Club.

Fort Lauderdale's Jorge Montero, 27, has returned to coach that program's 16-under division team. Montero was one of the club's original members and played collegiately at Mercyhurst. The team used the Sunshine State Games to prep for the upcoming Junior Olympics in San Jose, Calif.

"It is amazing to come back to the club I started at," said Montero, a 2005 graduate of Northeast High School in Oakland Park. "Seeing both sides of it now opened up a new side of the game. It's great being involved and teaching new players the future of water polo."

Cooper City's Brandon Bogumill, 18, competed on South Florida's 18-under team. The All-American and All-County standout at Cooper City High School has parlayed his water polo expertise into a college scholarship. He is headed to West Valley College in Saratoga, Calif.

Bogumill's eight-year career has taken him to Europe, Hungary and Serbia. Bogumill's South Florida team won a silver medal in the Sunshine State Games and a bronze medal in the Southeast Zone competition.

Florida Sports Foundation Senior Vice President Stephen Rodriguez, who coordinated the combined event, said that when water polo was just beginning in the Sunshine State Games, there were only seven or eight teams.

"Obviously one of our missions with the Sunshine State Games is to develop amateur sports," Rodriguez said. "We have had Colombia come out before, but for the others, this is their first year. We are beginning to grow to the international teams through word of mouth. I think it is very cool."

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