On April 28, the Wildcats won 7-6 in triple overtime. Two days later, the FHSAA told them they hadn’t.
It all came down to this one, singular moment.
Despite the exhaustion that comes with playing four quarters and two overtime periods, now was the time to strike. When McCarron Evans rose from the water and fired off the game-winner in the third overtime, she did just that.
Evans’ goal set off an exuberant shockwave that made its way around the pool — from those fans in the crowd to the Wildcats’ players splashing their way to one another to celebrate.
“We were all crazy tired, and it was a back-and-forth game,” said Erin Wright, a senior co-captain of the team. “The first two overtime quarters went by, and we ended up being tied at the end of that as well, so we went into our third overtime — which is sudden death.
“Our team scored first because we were playing under different premises for sudden death than we were for a normal, three minute overtime period,” she said. “We won.”
The epic 7-6 win over Lake Mary in triple overtime of the girls water polo regional final was supposed to punch the Wildcats’ tickets to the state semis in Miami.
Instead, thanks to a ruling by the FHSAA, the Wildcats’ gritty win was turned into a loss with the proverbial snap of two fingers.
The ordeal came about because of what the FSHAA Board of Directors said was the utilization of the wrong overtime format for water polo.
Instead of using the usual sudden-death overtime, the officials mistakenly followed the National Federation of State High School Association’s rulebook, which calls for two three-minute overtime periods followed by a sudden-death period, if necessary.
Before the start of the first overtime period, conditions were met with approval from both Winter Park coach Barry Creighton and Lake Mary’s Paige Baker, as well as captains from each team.
“We were all informed of what was going to happen, and what the procedures would be — which were the exact same thing we had done in the game before,” Wright said. “There were definitely no objections.”
Even if there had been any issues, coaches and players only can do so much when it comes to official decisions, said Wildcats’ longtime head coach Barry Creighton.
“I actually did know the rule — I asked the officials, (but) we have to go by what they say,” Creighton said. “You can’t argue with the officials — we’re not allowed to do that either — but apparently this time we were supposed to argue.”
Creighton learned of possible issues Saturday afternoon — hours after his girls had taken home that region title. After getting a message from Winter Park Athletic Director Michael Brown, Creighton sent in a statement regarding the game to the FHSAA. From there, it snowballed, he said.
Despite the fact that Lake Mary never filed an appeal, on Monday, April, 30, the FHSAA handed the Rams the 5-4 win — the score which would have been the original final if the game had gone straight to sudden death (the Rams notched the first goal in overtime).
Creighton then had to break the news to his girls.
“It was probably one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to do — to talk to the girls on Monday and tell them that they’re not going to the state tournament, even though they won the game and did not do anything wrong,” Creighton said. “It was tough — the girls were crying and angry, and crying again.”
“It was probably one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to do — to talk to the girls on Monday and tell them that they’re not going to the state tournament, even though they won the game and did not do anything wrong.”
- Barry Creighton
The next day Creighton, again had to talk with his girls after a hearing where the FHSAA voted in a unanimous 9-0 decision to deny Winter Park’s appeal of the penalty.
That final decision was both difficult and hard to grasp for the entire squad — but especially for Creighton’s two seniors — Wright and Emma Chouljian.
In Wright’s case, this tournament was a culmination of the four years of blood, sweat and tears she shed through countless practices and games.
“We won, and for that to be taken away from us after so much time and hard work — especially for me for four years and this was my last chance to go to states,” Wright said. “If we had done something wrong, it would have been way easier to process.”
Although nothing can be done about the decision, the sting of having her high-school career come to a close in such a brutal way is one that Wright said will live with her forever.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget this — water polo has been my life for the past four years, and this is something that you carry with you,” Wright said.