By Robert Campbell
In just his third season, Ethan Damato has established himself as one of the premier water polo coaches in the county, if not the state. Both his girls and boys teams at Laguna Beach High School already have garnered CIF titles, a first for the boys program in its 47-year history. And as a three-time CIF and two-time OC Register coach of the year, the 28-year-old coaching prodigy has also garnered the accolades of his peers and local sportswriters.
And while he might make it look easy, the Laguna native’s meteoric rise to the top is a result of hard work, dedication and an unbridled passion for a sport that he really didn’t take to until his freshman year at Laguna, the last time the boys made it to CIF finals before this year.
The young Damato wasn’t a member of that CIF squad, but he tasted the spirit and camaraderie that drove that team to the finals, and the excitement overwhelmed him. “I just bought in completely,” he said. “It was something that I wanted to be a part of.”
Damato would make varsity his junior season, earning second-team all-CIF honors as a defensive specialist. A year later, he would make first-team all-CIF as the team’s captain.
Almost from the beginning, Damato exhibited an uncanny ability to read his opponent and direct his teammates on how to adjust and overcome whatever offensive scheme the other team was running.
“Ethan was one of the smartest players I ever coached in the 13 years I was at Laguna,” said former LBHS Coach Rick Scott. “There was nothing that a team was going to be able to do that he didn’t understand how to counter or how to beat.”
Damato credits the sport and Scott with keeping him out of trouble in high school. “He kept me on the straight and narrow.”
Damato remembers Scott, his mentor and close friend, planting the coaching seed during a conversation in his junior year. And with the nurturing that Damato’s passion, competitiveness and heart for working with kids provided, that seed soon bore fruit as the fledgling coach began working later that same year for Chad Beeler, director of Laguna’s community age group water polo program.
“I think he’s carried a lot of that over to his coaching,” said Scott. “He really lets [a player] know that he cares about them as a whole person, not just an athlete.”
LBHS Athletic Director Mike Churchill hired Damato to succeed Beeler, who left the head coaching position in 2008 after one season to pursue other interests. “All hires should be so good,” said Churchill.
Today, in addition to his high school coaching duties, Damato is the head coach of the 16 and under girls at SET water polo club and the 11th grade and under girls team for USA Water Polo’s Olympic Development Program. During the day, he mentors students as a supervisor at LBHS. “He’s probably one of the hardest working coaches there is out there,” said Trevor Lyle, Damato’s assistant coach.
It’s Damato’s tireless work ethic that sets him, and consequently his teams, apart. “If you’re going to play water polo in Laguna and win, you need to be smarter than any other team and in better shape than any other team,” said Scott of the philosophy that he and Damato share.
To offset the small numbers and typically small players that are hallmarks of Laguna water polo teams, Damato runs his athletes through rigorous drills and year-round conditioning programs. He and his coaching staff also spend countless hours watching game films and scouting their opponents to give their players every conceivable advantage against what are typically deeper and more talented teams.
Their hard work seems to be paying off. The girls, who entered their first season in CIF division I ranked sixth, have climbed to third. As of Jan. 4, their record was 7-1, with the only loss coming in double overtime against arch rival Corona del Mar in the Holiday Tournament’s semi finals.
While Damato aspires to coaching at the college level someday, he is quite content guiding his alma mater to new heights. “We’ve got a full community of kids, parents, players and coaches that have really bought in to what we’re trying to do, and it’s been a pretty special ride,” said Damato.
Photo by Robert Campbell
LBHS water polo coach Ethan Damato was named 2010 coach of the year.