Big bucks bolster Sea Kings

Jill Damion knows that tennis can be an expensive sport.

True, all you technically need is a racquet, a tennis ball and a court. But the recent Corona del Mar High graduate also needed money, for both traveling to far-away tournaments and paying their entrance fees.

Damion, the No. 1 singles player for the Sea Kings' undefeated CIF championship team last fall, also had another advantage. Outside of school, she has been coached by Phil Dent, who is a former ATP Tour member and reached the finals of the 1974 Australian Open.

He's also Taylor Dent's dad. Taylor has won four ATP singles titles during his career, and was also the 1996 CIF singles champion while he attended CdM.

"For tennis, Southern California is one of the toughest places to play tennis in the country," said Damion, who is headed to UC Santa Barbara. "It helps that Southern California is such a breeding ground for tennis. Also, it helps that we live in an affluent area, because tennis is expensive. Outside of the high school tennis, everyone on the team had really good coaches. That helps a lot."

Ask the Corona del Mar High volleyball players who got to play in this summer's Junior Olympics, and they'd probably say that helped out a lot, too. Recent graduates like UCLA-bound Julianne Piggott, as well as incoming seniors like Gus Ellis on the boys' side, went to the Junior Olympics with the instruction of coaches like Orange Coast College head man Travis Turner, who coached the Balboa Bay Club Volleyball Club team that Ellis helped lead to a third-place finish in the Gold division 18s.

Some different experiences than just heading on a school bus for a Pacific Coast League match at Beckman, to be sure. But these off-campus adventures are also key reasons why the Corona del Mar High athletic program had a banner year in 2006-07, capturing a section-high five CIF Southern Section titles.

Wednesday the Daily Pilot featured the reasons for the success, including CdM's achievements in the classroom and a stable of more-than-competent coaches.

But the CIF titles probably also wouldn't be possible without a very positive environment in which to play sports. More than passing grades and aggressive coaching, it's about being given opportunities to succeed.

In the Back Bay, sports clearly don't take a back seat for many families.

It's not always talked about openly, but one of the edges CdM enjoys is money — and Newport Beach is one of the wealthiest places in California.

According to the United States Census of 2000, Newport Beach is the 33rd most wealthy city in California, with residents' per capita (per person) income at $63,015. The only two places in Orange County that were wealthier have since been annexed into Newport Beach: Newport Coast ($98,770) and San Joaquin Hills ($66,574).

On the playing field, that means parents can usually afford for their kids to participate in sports year-round, or at least at some point during the off-season. Just like that Balboa Bay Volleyball Club, which travels just as this year's aforementioned Junior Olympics, in Atlanta for the boys and Minneapolis for the girls.

The playing-outside-of-school factor can also be seen clearly in sports such as golf and water polo, where equipment is often expensive and tournaments are often far away.

"They definitely have more of a means," said CdM boys' basketball coach Ryan Schachter, who led Sea Kings boys' hoops to its fifth CIF championship last winter. "Golf, tennis, water polo are more successful in the affluent areas. Even in football, basketball and baseball, a lot of our parents have the means."

Damion's high school coach, Brian Ricker, also knows that all of the success would be impossible without winning attitudes. The Sea Kings simply believe they are going to win. It's something he said he's discussed with cross country and track and field coach Bill Sumner and girls' water polo coach Aaron Chaney, who coached CdM to five straight CIF Southern Section girls' water polo banners from 2002-06.

Girls' water polo was only introduced as a CIF Southern Section-sanctioned sport in 1998, but it didn't take long for CdM to become elite.

"It really is almost amazing how impressive the school is across the board," said Ricker, entering his fourth year at CdM after coaching at Laguna Beach. "We're just fortunate to have such hard-working girls. They want it, and they're willing to work hard at it. The top girls are hard workers at all the schools. But even down on the JV level at CdM, they're all motivated. It was a really eye-opening experience when I first got there."

The students at CdM, by and large, aren't content to simply go to the school, either. Orris said his best estimate is that 75% of the students participate in an extracurricular activities.

What does all this mean for CdM? An expectation of greatness, for one.

Boys' volleyball coach Steve Conti, who came to CdM in 1995, has coached his teams to the CIF Southern Section division finals in eight of his 12 years.

"There is a certain expectation at CdM," said Conti, who also coached the CdM girls to the Division III-AA title in 1997 before current coach Bill Christiansen took over in 2001. "That's something that was there when I was hired. I think success breeds success. Even the lower-level guys, it's obviously something they want to work toward. It's like an extended family."

The actual families of the students are also factors. Since many of them played sports in high school, they are eager for their sons and daughters to compete — and excel — at the high school level.

Sumner knows about wanting to excel. In the 1990s, he spearheaded the building of CdM's all-weather track, a project that ended up costing over $200,000 before its completion in 1998. Sumner said he raised much of the initial money himself, with the help of parents in his cross country and track programs.

"I had some corporate sponsorships, but the majority came from the Corona del Mar parent community," he said. "This community is a funny place. If you ask, you shall receive. The community stepped up; it was a great team."

In addition, the CdM pool is in the midst of a renovation, which is scheduled to conclude next month. Contributions came as a $290,000 check from the city of Newport Beach, and private donors have also contributed as well as the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

As of early August, about $1.3 million of the $1.8 million needed for the project has been raised, according to Angela Kraus of the Corona del Mar Community Aquatics Facilities Foundation.

Money aside, CdM seems to just want to get the job done.

"The advantage isn't financial," Sumner said. "The advantage is in the attitude. Corona del Mar kids show up thinking, 'We can win this thing.' You've got to have the attitude, baby. A Corona del Mar athlete asks themselves, 'How can we do this?'

"And, trying to answer that question, that's how they do well."

CdM boys' tennis coach Tim Mang, whose team seems to be constantly in a battle with University High for Pacific Coast League supremacy, would probably agree.

"There's a couple of years when we shouldn't have beaten Uni, and we did," Mang said. "They got nervous because they were playing Corona del Mar. That's why I constantly say, 'Hey, we can do it.' "

WORKING FOR THE FUTURE

Corona del Mar High boys' and girls' athletic director Paul Orris said last year was one of the most successful he can remember. For someone who's been at CdM since 1970, that's saying quite a bit.

But don't look for the CdM wagon to slow down anytime soon.

Mang said in looking to the past, there's a blueprint for the future. He can remember the stellar squads of the past, like the ones of former boys' basketball coach Tandy Gillis. The longtime men's basketball and tennis coach at Orange Coast College, Gillis first coached at CdM for seven years in the 1970s, compiling a 124-56 record, and winning four league championships.

He was replaced at CdM by Jack Errion, for whom the CdM basketball alumni tournament is named. Errion led CdM to two CIF titles.

"He was a heck of a coach," Mang said. "If you just talk to these guys for a while, you see how they're organized. Then, you know they're going to have good teams."

Conti's boys' volleyball team will be one of the five teams, along with girls' tennis, girls' cross country, boys' basketball and girls' track, which looks to defend its CIF Southern Section title this season.

That's not to mention sports like girls' volleyball, which reached the CIF Southern Section Division II-AA title match, and girls' water polo, which reached the Division I semifinals.

They will all be expected to have similarly strong seasons this upcoming year, and the players and coaches alike will be hard at work making sure that happens.

"I'd be out there for 10, but there's only seven days in a week," Sumner said. "They'll have to come and drag me away from here."

But perhaps more importantly than outside expectations, the athletes themselves expect to succeed. Players like Ellis, who was first-team All-CIF Division II for boys' volleyball, will be seniors.

That staggering list of the class of '08 also includes Stefan Kaluz, CdM boys' basketball go-to guy and the Division III-A Player of the Year.

On the girls' side, Shelby Buckley and Allison Damon (girls' cross country and track) will be seniors, which means bad news for the opposition.

Buckley is the defending CIF Southern Section Masters Champion in the 1,600 meters, and she placed third in the event at the state finals.

Five more CIF titles may or may not be in the cards, but rest assured that the walls in the Corona del Mar High gym will get more and more crowded.


MATT SZABO may be reached at (714) 966-4614 or at matthew.szabo@latimes.com.

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