Three years of playing water polo at Pico Rivera El Rancho have given junior Miriam Quintanilla more than she ever could have expected: a new group of friends, better grades and a reason to do something more than simply head home after school every day.
"It has given me a life," she said. And it has given her and her teammates something more: a coach who is also a father figure.
Marcelo Leonardi has turned the fortunes of the girls' water polo team by expecting the same dedication and hard work from his players as he gives to them.
Leonardi was El Rancho's third coach in the first three years of the program when he took over only a few months before the start of the 1999-2000 season,
"Water polo at El Rancho was not a big thing when I arrived," said Leonardi, 26. "It took a long time, a lot of development, and I had to sell the program to get the girls to come out."
The Dons, who were 34-38 in their first three seasons under Leonardi, are 16-3 this season and are expected to win their first Del Rio League title. They play at Santa Fe Springs Santa Fe today.
"He has been the catalyst," said Leonardi's assistant, Joel Francisco, who is also the boys' swimming and water polo coach at El Rancho.
Nobody in Leonardi's program had any experience playing water polo, so he has had to teach the sport from the basics up.
"We have lots of physical talent," he said. "It's just raw and unpolished."
But it's Leonardi's contributions to his players' lives, far beyond the edges of the pool, that have made the biggest impact.
"He's like another father to me," said Quintanilla, whose parents are separated and whose biological father lives in Los Angeles. "I can talk to him about everything and anything. He's always there to talk to me."
Besides listening to his players when they come to him with problems, Leonardi helps them find solutions. Often, that means sharing the troubles with the rest of the teammates so they can talk them out.
"We're all a really big family," Quintanilla said. "We can talk about anything and don't keep personal stuff to ourselves. It makes us play better as a team, and that's how we create chemistry."
Leonardi continually sells the positive aspects of playing water polo at El Rancho, trying to interest more students to come out for the team. In his first season, he had 11 players. This season, he has 35, which has allowed the program to field two lower-level teams.
Julie DeLoach, a first-team All-Southern Section selection last season, gave up basketball as a freshman because she was intrigued by the idea of spending her afternoons in the pool. The only senior starter for the Dons, she has a team-high 96 goals this season. She scored 115 last season.
Quintanilla, who was talked into trying out for the team by a friend in her freshman math class, was moved this season from two-meter defense to goalkeeper and has been the team's most improved player. She is giving up slightly more than four goals per game.
Leonardi expects Sharayah Hernandez, a 5-foot-10 sophomore who has taken Quintanilla's place at two-meter defense, to be the best player to come out of El Rancho.
"I haven't even tapped into her potential," Leonardi said.
Junior Brandy Bray, a left-hander, handles most of the team's two-meter offense. Bray and Hernandez have combined for more than 30 goals and 30 steals this season.
The Dons, ranked No. 3 in the section Division III coaches' poll, were engaged in a thrilling back-and-forth nonleague game against seventh-ranked La Verne Bonita on Tuesday.
The Dons took a three-goal lead in the first quarter only to fall behind by one at the end of the third quarter. They regained the lead by two goals in the fourth quarter, but with 10 seconds left to play, Bonita tied the score, then went on to win in overtime, 10-9.
For a well-established program such as Bonita's, close games are nothing new. El Rancho, conversely, is still learning to play in big games, and nervousness occasionally gets the best of its players. All three of the Dons' losses have been by one goal.
"You didn't hear about El Rancho girls' water polo before Marcelo arrived," said Alex Rodriguez, Bonita's coach and a Pepperdine men's assistant.
Rodriguez is a longtime admirer of Leonardi. The two grew up together in the Pico Rivera area, where they were altar boys at the same church and played water polo against each other in high school.
Leonardi, 26, graduated from Claremont Webb and played water polo for four years at Whittier College, where he also earned a master's degree.
"Marcelo was always really smart," Rodriguez said. "He was the pride and joy of our church because he spoke Spanish and English perfectly and was just a little kid.... El Rancho is lucky to have him."