For Cal State Northridge head water polo coach Marcelo Leonardi education comes first.
His 49-24 record in just two seasons at CSUN has thrown Leonardi into the spotlight. He has been selected as an assistant coach on the United States Junior National Team that will compete in the World Championships later this year in Tieste, Italy. Leonardi finds the attention flattering, but it’s the educational road that means most to the Matador head coach who has brought the Northridge water polo program to national prominence.
His parents, immigrants from Argentina, always put an emphasis on education. Leonardi sees himself as a coach, teacher and, more importantly, an educator.
“My parents always stressed education as a high priority,” said Leonardi, who recently received his doctorate in educational leadership. “I followed their advice that if you wanted to move up and be successful, your education would be important. Their advice has led me through high school, college and beyond.”
The road to a successful career as a water polo coach became more focused as he approached getting his bachelor’s degrees in biology and Spanish from Whittier College in 1998.
Leonardi thought his degree in biology would lead to a career in medicine.
“During my last two years of school, I found that I was a better communicator and I really enjoyed sports,” said Leonardi, who was a three-year starter on the Whittier water polo team. “With my degree and my water polo background, I thought I could coach and teach at the secondary level.”
His first teaching job was as a “long term sub” at El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera.
“I started the girls water polo team from the ground level,” said Leonardi. “At first, we started as a team just learning how to swim. Then we advanced to the basics of play in a tough sport like water polo.”
The hard work and diligence paid off. Four years after starting, El Rancho’s girls water polo captured the league title and advanced to the CIF championship game.
“The success of the program opened the door for several students to pursue their dream of attending college,” Leonardi said.
While at El Rancho, Leonardi decided to hit the books one more time, this time for a teaching credential and master’s in education. He earned a master’s degree in education from Whittier College in 2001 and, two years later, a teaching credential in biology/life sciences.
In 2005, Leonardi’s career took a significant turn. While traveling with his El Rancho club team from the Junior Olympics in San Jose, Leonardi read a newsletter from Matador athletics. In it was a notice that CSUN was looking for an assistant water polo coach to work with then head coach Molly Barnes. It was intriguing.
“The more Molly described the program and its opportunities, the more excited I got,” said Leonardi. “I was hooked. I wanted to go coach water polo at the highest level of NCAA Division I and CSUN gave me that opportunity. I got the job.”
Leonardi laughs at the amount of time he spent on L.A. freeways to get to work from his home in Long Beach to El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera, and then to Cal State Northridge to help coach the Matador team. Adding to his freeway time was his decision to pursue an advanced degree at Azusa Pacific University. He averaged 120-mile-round trips every day for five years.
The sacrifices, he said, were worth it.
“If I was going to move forward in higher education, whether it was coaching, teaching or motivational teaching, I would need that advanced degree,” said Leonardi.
In 2009, Leonardi was named interim head coach at Cal State Northridge. The “interim” tag was lifted after Leonardi coached the Matadors to its best season ever (28-8), a first place finish during the Big West regular season and a ninth place national ranking. In 2011, Cal State Northridge posted another 20-win season and another national ranking.
Leonardi’s now devotes his times to the Cal State Northridge water polo program, which means no more grueling drives on L.A.’s freeways.
“My wife and I have been able to buy a home in Monrovia, which means the commute is much easier,” said Leonardi, whose wife, Kendra, is a third grade teacher.
Next on his agenda is to help the United States win the gold medal at the Junior World Championships in Trieste, Italy. The United States is ranked one of the top teams in the world at the junior and senior national levels.
“The coaching assignment with USA Water Polo is a great opportunity to work with the top women’s players in that age group in the country and learn from other elite coaches like Heather Moody (head coach of the USA Junior National team and assistant coach of the USA Senior National team), Adam Krikorian (head coach of the USA Senior National Team) and Dan Klatt (assistant coach of the USA Senior National team),” said Leonardi. “It is the ultimate form of professional development in coaching women’s water polo, p lus you’re representing your country. There is a sense of pride. When you put on that USA shirt, it’s something special.”