Ann Arbor, MI. Since arriving in Ann Arbor in 2014, Michigan head coach Marcelo Leonardi has directed one of the country’s top women’s water polo programs to even greater heights. Last year the Wolverines went 30-8, beat U Cal Berkeley for the first time and — following a fourth-place finish in the 2016 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament — achieved the program’s highest-ever ranking (#4).
Like many top coaches in the sport, Dr. Leonardi is a Californian who achieved great success out West. From 2009 – 2014 he was head women’s water polo coach at California State University in Northridge, where his teams compiled a 115-64 record. He also coached the U.S. Youth Women’s National Team from 2012-16. In 2014 Team USA captured its first-ever gold at the FINA Youth World Championship in Madrid, Spain.
On Sunday in Lewisburg, PA # 7 Michigan will face #10 Princeton and Ashleigh Johnson in a possible preview of the 2017 Collegiate Water Polo Association’s (CWPA) championship match.
Sitting in his office overlooking the Donald B. Canham Natatorium’s pool, Dr. Leonardi recently spoke with Total Waterpolo contributor Michael Randazzo about his transition to the Midwest and the “Michigan Way,” his plan to transform Wolverine polo into a top-five program and Ann Arbor’s fertile high school water polo scene.
How did you end up in Michigan?
For 15 years I was a full-time teacher at El Rancho High School [outside of Los Angeles] and full-time head coach at Cal State Northridge. I was in my fifth year as a head, I had done four as an assistant.
I drove a lot—150 miles per day. I taught in the morning from 7am until 12pm. Get in my car, get some lunch. Drive to Northridge and work from 2pm – 7pm. [Next day] repeat the whole thing all over again.
One morning as I’m getting ready to teach AP Environmental Science, I got a phone call from Lisa Savory [Michigan Sports Administrator] who said: “Marcelo, would you be interested in being the next Michigan coach?”
Inside it was like an explosion. My mind’s [saying]: “Be calm cool and collected about this.”
I replied: “Yes, sure. Why not?”
She knew everything about my life: my teaching job, my wife, my successes, my failures—everything.
I asked: “Lisa, you know a lot about me. How do you know [all this]?”
She said: “I called Adam Krikorian [head coach for the U.S. National Women’s Team] and he gave me a list of candidates that I’ve been overseeing for the last year and a half. Your name is on that list and now we’re giving you a call.”
I put my paperwork and application together, sent it in, and the moment I finished with her I called my wife, who said: “We’re going to Michigan, huh?!”
We had just bought a house in Monrovia—we were settled, I was going to be a lifer—I have everything that I want teaching and coaching [in California].
I came on a visit to Michigan—I scoped everything out—met people, took a look at where the program was and did a quick assessment. I wasn’t here long—just two days.
They made me a great offer and I took it.
For me Michigan is a top-five program—across the world a top-five program. You have everything: an athletic department that’s top-tier and academics that are top-tier. It’s not just the resources but also the culture of this place: college town, tradition, history.
When I took over the program I believe they had fallen out of the top 20 for the first time in a while. I really didn’t know what I was getting in to in terms of where the program was at until I finally got here.
I gave myself three years to make the change but we experienced quick success in year two. Now in year three we’re where we should be.
As part of recasting Wolverine water polo you made a drastic schedule changes, pushing your team to play extended periods in California.
When I arrived I thought: “What’s the best schedule in the country that I can come up with while missing very little class time?” What’s good about water polo is that we play tournaments Saturdays and Sundays. So we pack four to five games into one weekend. We rarely play Monday through Friday.
What I did in my first year was: take our lumps and get into the best tournaments, create the best RPI, the best schedule that was not only rigorous but allowed us to take the appropriate flights; leaving on a Friday, coming back on a red-eye, having practice on Monday.
They learned how to study in airports, in hotels… we made it work. If you look at our team GPA the past three years we’ve been above a 3.2 collectively. We have a NCAA Elite 90 award winner in Danielle Johnson. A Big 10 scholar athlete in Ali Thomason. We’re still achieving academic success as well as athletic success.
We practice from 7:30 – 10:30am so kids can go to school and be successful. There’s very few programs in this country that do what we do. You say Stanford? Stanford does it. Academically and athletically they’re elite.
There are programs that are academically driven, [with] water polo secondary. There’s some where water polo is primary, academics are secondary. There’s only a handful of schools that can truly say they are successful in both avenues and that put the amount of time, resources and effort into being not only champions in the classroom but champions in the field.
As a non-Californian school in a sport dominated by the West, you have to work harder to compete.
When I first got here I told myself I would not sacrifice my long-term sustainability for the quick-fix. I spent the entire year one assessing, evaluating and trying to be competitive [Michigan went 19-13 in the 2015 season, losing to Harwick in the third place match at the CWPA Championship]. And I thought we were competitive. But I looked at the long-term: how can we do this the right way?
I also wanted to get a feel for what a Michigan student athlete really was and what they had to go through to be successful in the classroom and the pool. Once I figured that out, I started recruiting athletes capable of doing that.
Michigan is a pressure cooker. You have to be successful in school, athletics and socially. If you fail at any one of those three you don’t belong in Michigan.
In the recruiting process, everyone always wants “the best” kid. But every year there are five elite water polo players in the U.S. And 60 universities are chasing those five. So we have to broaden our recruiting base by going international as well.
If the top four or five schools in the country are getting one, two, three of those kids, we have to balance out that recruiting with: one domestic [player]; one international. If we can do that, then every year we’re getting two blue chip players in our pipeline. That’s how we counterbalance being able to play with the top four or five. You have to.
What they have done as well is they’re recruiting internationals as well. If you look back at rosters five years ago there are very few internationals in the top five—minus USC because they’re predominately international as well. Now, coaches realize there’s talent everywhere. But it still has to fit our mold: academic standards and the athletic standards that I have as a coach to fit my system. [I’m not] just looking for the best water polo player; they not only have to fit my system of play, they also have to fit the culture at Michigan.
I’m now in my third recruiting cycle, I felt last year we had a great incoming freshman class. This next one coming in will also be really good and impact our program, and now—little by little—we start building. More of the top-tier kids are now looking to come to the Midwest, to come to Michigan—to not only be part of our program but also if they have national team aspirations.
Before it was tough to say that. They weren’t getting the competitive schedule. They weren’t getting the training. They weren’t provided the avenue to be successful.
Now, when you look at our program, between Heidi Rittner and Maggie Johnston—who are both in the National Team pipeline—Alex Corbett and Maddy Steere, also in the national team pipeline [for Australia], kids want to come here if that have Olympic aspirations.
Clearly, playing for the former head coach of the US Women’s Youth National Team is an inducement to come to Michigan.
I became the youth team head coach when I was at Northridge. My first cycle started in 2012. I was an assistant with the junior team in 2011, then I became the youth team head coach while at Northridge. I was the ODP technical director, overseeing the technical and tactical terminology, language and helping develop the first stages of kids getting into the pipeline.
When I went through that first cycle, that was my professional development—that’s how I got better as a coach. I started traveling internationally and learning from other coaches on my staff: Coralie Simmons, Ethan Damato. I started working with Adam here and there.
When I came to Michigan that’s when I began the second cycle as a youth coach. Just this past year in New Zealand I finished that [cycle] and cycled out as the youth team head coach. I’m still involved with USA Water Polo as the ODP Technical Administrator on the girls’ side.
I feel that as I grew in the last four years as a coach—this is also what has allowed me to be a successful coach at Michigan.
Along the way I identified talented athletes that—once they realized that Michigan was a viable option—they want to come here. They knew I’d be coaching here, and would bring in a good staff and other athletes, which piqued their interest.
All it takes is one.
And that one was you…
That’s the starting point. But Heidi Rittner said: “Yes.” Maggie Steere said: “Yes.” Maddie Johnston said: “Yes.” They all have Olympic dreams. From there, the program now sells itself.
When you came to Michigan in 2014, you not only had to institute a new system and change the scheduling, you had to coach Matt Anderson’s players.
When I first got the job I called every single athlete; there was a roster of 33 that I inherited, with 13 freshmen. I introduced myself, told them where I was coming from, what I was looking for. I kept everybody on the roster for six weeks. I taught them how to play water polo, I identified their strengths and weaknesses, changed the culture of the program, implemented my six pillars of success.
And from there I made cuts. I cut the roster to 24. I cut all walk-ons but I didn’t cut any scholarship athletes.
I respected them. I didn’t cut any seniors. Fortunately I had two seniors my first year that were good and participated and believed in what we were doing.
But it was hard. A lot of kids wanted to transfer; a lot of kids didn’t believe in what this was about.
I was brought in to change the program and I changed it.
We have currently have six seniors out of the original 13: [Allison] Skaggs, DJ [Danielle Johnson], Heidi [Moreland], Kim [Graziano], Kaitlyn Cozens and Ebie [Emily Browning]. These are the ones that chose to stay, to buy into the system—and what they say: “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.” [A Bo Schembechler saying in large block letters on the wall of Leonardi’s office.]
What are the challenges of building a program in Michigan which has produced distinguished high school athletes?
If you look at the talent that’s come out of Michigan: Betsey Armstrong; Alison Gregorka, who chose Stanford, she’s an Olympian. You look at Kim Graziano, you look at Katie Dudley, who’s now at Stanford. These are talented kids from Michigan that I felt maybe didn’t have an option to come here. Betsey did and was successful. But the sample size is one.
That’s really tough. It the sample size were five, six, seven who were able to make a pipeline to the national team and Olympic play and were successful, I think it would be more attractive.
Plus, high school water polo here might be different than California, but the athlete is an athlete. If you’re athletic, and you’re driven, you can still be a DI women’s water polo player. And you can aspire of being an Olympian—if you fit the criteria.
Michigan high school water polo is developing, there’s good coaches—not only Will Hart but also Katie Card Neidermire, Rebecca Godett, Matt Latham. From their group there’s always going to be one kid who comes out. Where do they go. They have so many different options.
Brianna Coury [star player for Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor] is going to Northridge. I think that’s awesome. If kids want to go [out of state] they should go. If they want to stay, they have a viable option.
Given the success the Wolverines enjoyed last season, the bar for success in 2017 has been set high.
The success that we experienced last year, as much of an anomaly as it was, we became consistent. If you look at everything that we’re doing—we’re beating the teams we need to beat, we’re competing against the teams we should be competing against, and we’re raising the bar every year.
And what’s the bar? Michigan is about winning conference championships and once you get to NCAAs, make some noise.
In year two we were fortunate enough to do that, and I feel like year three we’re in position—we’re number seven in the country—and we still have the same goals: win a conference championship, get to NCAAs and win a first round match. You win your first-round match in NCAAs and you’re in the Final Four. And after that you’re in the Final.
You do the things that you do throughout the season to prep you for conference, then once you do that, everything else will come. We don’t set a standard to just win a national championship. As realistic as that may or may not be, you want to win your conference before you win it all. The national championship comes afterwards.
This program had not seen a conference championship in six years. They hadn’t seen a Final Four appearance in 14. If you stay consistent with your goals there’s going to be a year with a semi-final win in the NCAAs—now you’re in the championship game.
I believe things happen with time and it’s step-by-step.