Dr. Phillips boys water polo rises from young surprise to state’s top team

The FHSAA boys water polo district playoffs have begun. Despite a young roster, the Panthers (24-2) are one of the favorites to bring a state title home.

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Regret and experience are some of the best teachers this world has to offer, and mastering balance on the ever-delicate tightrope of confidence and recklessness can lead to great opportunities, while the art of developing chemistry sparks an understanding between humans unexplainable by science. 

These philosophical musings are the best way to cut to what’s at the heart of the 2024 Dr. Phillips boys water polo team. 

On the surface, the Panthers (24-2) are a young and exciting team that has begun its journey to win a state championship. But just under that surface, Dr. Phillips’ path to securing a state crown will be about more than just winning games. It’ll be a coming-of-age story. 

Learn from your mistakes

Ryan Tannus is a four-year varsity player and the only senior on the 2024 Dr. Phillips roster. Over the course of his high school career, he has scored 290 goals, had 203 assists and played in 95 games. He also has helped the Panthers win 85% of its games (87-16) over the past four years, to go along with DP’s two district titles, two regional titles and back-to-back appearances in the state championship game.

It’s safe to say the kid has been around the block a few times and learned the lessons that came with that journey.

“In my freshman and sophomore years, I was in a similar position to a lot of our guys this year,” Tannus said. “I was a young player who started on great teams that went to back-to-back state title games — but finished second both times. When I look back at those seasons, there are so many things I wish I could have changed.

“This year, when I look at our team, I feel like we have what it takes to win it all,” he said. “So I’m taking the opportunity to focus on everything I could have done better earlier in my career. I’m not willing to make those same mistakes again. This is my last opportunity to show everyone what Dr. Phillips is about and bring home a state championship.”

Tannus is using his past as a tool of motivation and wisdom for not only his benefit but also for the rest of the team.

“I’m trying to make sure I’m sharing that knowledge with everyone,” Tannus said. “I’ve been there, I know what it takes and what we’re going to have to do as a team to get that trophy. I know how we have to work, and that’s why I push everyone when I can. … We all have to get up, show up and practice hard — especially at those 5 a.m. practices. Just because we have the No. 1 ranking next to our name, it doesn’t mean we’re the top team in the state. What’s going to determine that is the work we put in behind the scenes and our ability to keep working every day, if we want to win states.”

Tannus’ mindset and dedication to helping his teammates avoid the mistakes he’s made have helped take the youthful surprise of 2023 and evolve the 2024 version into a juggernaut. 

“Last year, we went into the season with the mindset that it was a rebuilding year,” Tannus said. “We had a young team with like three freshmen starting; I didn’t have a lot of high hopes. But we were actually able to pull together and have a pretty good season. With everyone coming back … I thought we would step up and become a force coming into this year, but I also knew that we were going to have a target on our backs. But with the time we’ve had to build team chemistry — and our whole connection — into something really solid, we’ve been able to deal with that pressure from other teams. This team works really well together, and we’ve been able to have a great season.”

Balancing act

The difference between confidence and recklessness can be a line as wide as an 18-wheeler, or as narrow as a fine-tooth comb; learning to balance on that ever-changing tightrope can lead to great opportunities, while falling on the wrong side can cost you something money can’t buy. 

For the Panthers’ young collection of talent, playing with confidence can lead to something beautiful in the pool. 

“Honestly, they seem to have a lot of fun together; sometimes too much, when I’m trying to get things done at practice,” Dr. Phillips coach Leonardo Leon Ramirez said. “They always are trying to have a good time, and I think that pays off in games, because they get loose. When that happens, they play in a way that makes it so much more difficult for the other teams to deal with mentally. It’s already hard to see those guys kicking your team’s butt, but when they do it with a big smile on their face, it’s almost paralyzing.” 

But when the team Humpty Dumptied itself on the overly confident side of the wall, it can lead to mistakes and overall reckless play. 

“Last year was a huge surprise for me … because we lost 10 players, brought back only one starter and added a couple of brand new players,” Leon Ramirez said. “Getting everybody back, I expected us to do well this year and we have. But did I expect us to be doing this well? Probably not, because of how young we are. … Despite our great season, I still feel like our age does show up at times, and we get a little reckless. We still make a lot of mistakes that you don’t make when you have more experience.” 

The team knows that cleaning up those mistakes are vital to DP’s pursuit of state championship glory. 

“We just need to go out and win,” DP goalie Mete Gunduz said. “We have to lock in, work hard and keep up a high level of focus for the whole game. We’ve sometimes had the tendency to let our intensity drop or stop playing as hard when we build a lead or overlook the opponent.”

Leon Ramirez knows the road to a state title will be long and difficult — and will most certainly require DP to win multiple close games.

“We’re definitely going to be in this fight until the very end,” Leon Ramirez said. “I know that this is not going to come easy for us, but we’re confident. We know that we have to play very good defense at the end of games and put everything else together, too. If we do that, I think we have a really good chance of going back to Miami for the Final Four.”

Sophomore Emanuel Pardo agrees. 

“As long as we stay confident and tiptoe down that line without crossing over to being over-confident, that’s all I think we really have to do to be able to get to the states and win it,” he said. 

Chemistry is an art, not a science

The chemistry that this group has managed to develop over their time together is a crucial aspect of the success DP has had. 

“We’re like a family,” Gunduz said. “We all love each other in and out of the pool. So the chemistry we’ve managed to develop is really part of our game. That’s the difference between our team and others — the way we can work together, how we connect and how we’re able to find a path for the ball to get to the net as a team.”

This element of the Panthers’ success doesn’t just happen because a group of guys get along. Rather, it has to be earned and nurtured over time.

“Our chemistry is something we have to keep up with constantly,” Pardo said. “We’re always still learning how to play together and understand more about each other individually. We have to keep pushing to improve that, because not every game is going to be easy for us.”

Every practice and game is a chance to deepen that chemistry, and they all know state glory only will come if they can play as one.

“Because of how well we’ve performed together, we’ve had a realization as a team that we really have what it takes to be great,” Pardo said. “That’s been huge for our confidence in (one another) and has helped us build more and more chemistry.”

Sam Albuquerque is the Sports Editor for the Orange Observer. Please contact him with story ideas, results and statistics.

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Sam Albuquerque

A native of João Pessoa, Brazil, Sam Albuquerque moved in 1997 to Central Florida as a kid. After earning a communications degree in 2016 from the University of Central Florida, he started his career covering sports as a producer for a local radio station, ESPN 580 Orlando. He went on to earn a master’s degree in editorial journalism from Northwestern University, before moving to South Carolina to cover local sports for the USA Today Network’s Spartanburg Herald-Journal. When he’s not working, you can find him spending time with his lovely wife, Sarah, newborn son, Noah, and dog named Skulí.

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