Ciarelli steps down as Newport Harbor football strength coach

Stephanie and Tony Ciarelli were born two days apart in 1954. The married couple wound up sharing their 60th birthdays in June.

It turned out to be a surprise party for the Ciarellis. It took place at Baci, their favorite Italian restaurant in Huntington Beach, where 100 family members and friends gathered on a Sunday to celebrate the Ciarelli couple's birthdays.

The next day, husband and wife went back to work as members of the Newport Harbor High football coaching staff. The first day back landed on Stephanie's birthday, June 23, the same day the Sailors began their summer football workouts.

What should have been a day of celebration, her actual birthday, Stephanie knew her coaching career was ending. With the start of the summer, she counted the number of days left as Newport Harbor's strength and conditioning coach. She had a month to say her goodbyes.

She waited until the final day, on Wednesday. Even then, she couldn't tell everyone. She wouldn't be able to handle all the emotion. She arrived at Newport Harbor nine years ago, and since then the program has been like family to her.

To avoid breaking down, Stephanie made her departure brief. She hugged some incoming senior players, before saying goodbye to the coaches. Coach Jeff Brinkley and the rest of the staff knew for a couple of months that Stephanie was stepping down to spend more time with her family, especially her four grandchildren.

She's trading in her titles as "Coach" and "Your Highness" for one she will be hearing a lot. Stephanie is going to be just "Grandma" now, and she's more than OK with that.

"It was time to go because I have family members who need my attention now," said Stephanie, referring to her grandkids, Luciano, a newborn, Giovani, 2, Benicio, 4, and Liliana, 6. "Me and my husband are really involved with our grandkids and we love to babysit a lot.

"It was a great group of people to work with and we had too much fun at Newport Harbor. Being the strength coach was the greatest job in the world. I'm going to miss it."

One person Stephanie will miss working with is her husband. Tony and Stephanie are best friends.

Without the two, the Sailors aren't one of the strongest and most conditioned programs in the state. The duo built an Olympic weightlifting facility second to no other high school in the state.

It is no surprise that in Stephanie's first season with the Sailors in 2005 they claimed the CIF Southern Section Division VI title. In her final season, the Sailors reached the CIF Southern Section Southwest Division final. They lost the game to Huntington Beach, the same school that gave Stephanie a shot to coach in 1993.

At that time, a woman in charge of a high school football's strength program was unheard of. Twenty-one years later, she doesn't know any other woman who holds her old position at another high school in Orange County.

Stephanie said she's been very lucky. Her husband calls her a pioneer. She never felt disrespected because she was a woman in a man's sport.

Looking back, the seniors who had an issue with her taking over as the strength coach at Huntington Beach, she believes it had to do with her changing up the workouts. Stephanie knew what she was doing. She had the credentials.

"She was the first female world junior head coach and she did it for two years," Tony said of his wife, who also served as a junior national coach for USA Weightlifting.

Tony is the one responsible for getting his wife into competitive weightlifting after they married in 1975. A year later, Stephanie set a women's world record for the 114-pound division, with a 225-pound squat.

Tony and Stephanie met at the CIF State track and field championships in 1972 in Oroville. Tony went as an athlete for Huntington Beach and Stephanie as a cheerleader for Santa Ana. There weren't many opportunities for girls in sports back then.

The two fell in love, moved to Hawaii, and when they returned to the mainland, they raised their family. Stephanie and Tony gave their three daughters all the opportunities mom didn't have as a kid. Allison became a star volleyball player, and Maryn and Katelyn standouts in weightlifting.

Maryn has followed in her mom's footsteps in becoming a strength coach. She's trained the likes of Misty-May Treanor, one of the most accomplished volleyball players. After Stephanie retired, Maryn praised her mom on Facebook.

"I have been interviewed by the UFC, newspapers and reporters from all over, and one of the biggest questions and comments is always about being a female strength coach, in a male dominated field," Maryn wrote. "They are surprised I do it, they are surprised my professional athletes are being trained by a girl and all that. But I have never once given it a second thought, I never thought I couldn't do it because I'm a girl and that is because my amazing mom. Stephanie Searles Ciarelli has taught me how to teach and produce quality athletes in the weight room! She is Super Woman to me."

Tony hopes Maryn can take over for mom someday. She already helps the volleyball and track and field teams train at Newport Harbor.

Tony said Maryn would be a natural, and dad is going to need someone to supervise the 70-80 football players in the weight room during the spring, when he's working with the throwers during the track and field season. Stephanie used to take care of that, making sure the football players put in the necessary off-season work.

"For the incoming freshmen, she was very nurturing and motherly like," Tony said. "Once the season ends, the fun and games are over and it's time to start working. She's not so motherly then. They're like, 'She was so nice. What happened to the nice coach?'"

The nice coach is retired and being sweet to her four grandkids.

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