Graduation is gold for CSUN water polo coach
The office has an unfinished feel to it. A lone plant sits in the far left corner with water polo pictures hovering above. The wall to the right is completely empty.
“I want you to envision this wall filled with small plaques with pictures of my graduates,” said Water Polo Head Coach, Dr. Marcelo Leonardi. “Winning games come and go, but looking up every year and knowing that someone has come through this program and graduated, that’s by far my most important accomplishment here.”
Despite Leonardi’s numerous achievements, including two gold medals, a doctorate in education and an impressive 91-56 record in four years at CSUN, his dedication to graduating student-athletes remains the focus of his program.
“I think it’s very special when someone can come through our program, play Division I water polo and graduate successfully. Every year in May, I get that reminder of what I’m really doing here,” said Leonardi.
Entering his fifth season at CSUN, the 37-year-old never thought he would be a coach.
His journey began at Webb High School one day during swim practice, when someone tossed a water polo ball into the pool.
He was hooked and after playing four years in high school, he continued his career at Whittier College before graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and Spanish.
At 22, Leonardi was awarded his first teaching job at El Rancho High School and the following year the athletic director asked him if he would coach the school’s water polo and swim teams.
“I never thought I was going to be a coach, I was a teacher by profession and those were two pathways in my life I just kept developing. I still do both, I still hold on to teaching because I think teachers make great coaches and vice versa,” said Leonardi.
During his tenure at El Rancho, the Dons won two Del Rio League water polo titles and advanced to the Division III CIF championship game in 2004. For his leadership, he was named CIF Division III Coach of the Year.
Following the defeat, Leonardi felt he reached his potential at El Rancho and wanted to pursue coaching at the collegiate level.
He was hired as an assistant coach at Northridge under head coach Molly Barnes in 2006.
When Barnes stepped down in the 2010 season, Leonardi was promoted to interim head coach and shortly after, he became the head coach.
In his first season with the Matadors, the team exceeded all expectations setting a school record for wins with 28.
“I thought in four years we changed the culture of the program, we redefined certain expectations athletically and academically. We were one game away from winning it all, and I’m really pleased as how my first year as head coach went.”
Northridge finished first during the Big West regular season and earned a ninth place national ranking.
Two years after taking the head coaching job at CSUN, Leonardi was asked to be an assistant coach on the United States Women’s Junior National water polo team.
During the 2012 Junior Pan Am Championships in Montreal, Leonardi won gold with Team USA as an assistant coach.
“It provided me an opportunity to coach the highest level athletes in our country, an opportunity to travel and meet international coaches, it was a great form of development,” said Leonardi.
Leonardi was also a member of the 2013 United States Women’s Youth National Water Polo Team coaching staff that won gold at the UNANA Youth Pan American Championship in Argentina.
Right before the championship game against Canada, he told the team that there is no greater experience than standing on the platform and hearing your national anthem.
“That’s the pinnacle of it, hearing your national anthem means you’re a winner. It means you did your job and the training, the process, the culmination, it all paid off,” said Leonardi.
Northridge has won 20 plus games in three of four seasons under coach Leonardi, and has garnered national recognition in multiple seasons.
Junior center Marisa Young admits that having a coach with national experience gives her confidence going into games.
“I get confidence from it and I feel better knowing that he has that experience and wants to continue improving himself as a coach, he’s constantly growing while we grow as well,” Young said.
Recently, Leonardi was promoted to head coach of the United States Women’s Youth National water polo team and named National Technical Director of the Women’s Olympic Development Program.
To remind himself of his humble beginning, Leonardi still carries his first clipboard from El Rancho and uses it to this day when coaching.
“It’s a small reminder of where I came from and where my first water polo coaching position was, where that culture started that I’ve embedded and instilled into this program.”
Despite the improvement of the Big West Conference, his goals remain the same: to win the Big West
Championship, place as many athletes on All-Academic as possible and make sure the graduation rate continues to stay at a high level.
10 years from now Leonardi believes he will still be coaching water polo, helping students graduate while competing for the ultimate prize.
“I will still be coaching, I know that for a fact, every year presents itself with something new. That’s why I’m still here. I believe in CSUN, in our administration, in Dr. Martin, I think with the change that’s occurring now CSUN can be in the mix to play for multiple championships down the road.”