Tony Ciarelli left his mark on high school track and field

Tony Ciarelli is shown at his home in Huntington Beach. Ciarelli is the longtime throws coach at Newport Harbor High School.
Tony Ciarelli is shown at his home in Huntington Beach. Ciarelli is the longtime throws coach at Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the spring sports season was canceled, ending his high school coaching career.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

High school track and field in California generally ranks among the best in the nation.

Several of the top shotput and discus throwers the state has seen were coached by Tony Ciarelli.

Huntington Beach High School’s Scott Moser (213 feet, 11 inches in 1997) and Newport Harbor’s Bo Taylor (213-7 in 2006) rank second and third on the state’s all-time list for the discus throw.

Both were coached by Ciarelli, the Olympic weight training and conditioning guru who graduated from Huntington Beach High in 1972.

Ciarelli had opted to make this season his last at the high school level before joining forces with his daughter Katelyn, who is an associate head coach of track and field at UC Irvine.

He wanted to finish out the high school career of Aidan Elbettar. The Newport Harbor senior was coming off a junior season in which he was the CIF Southern Section Division 2 champion in both the shotput and the discus throw.

The storybook ending was taking shape, too. On March 11, Elbettar recorded a throw of 200-8 in a dual meet against Marina, becoming Ciarelli’s fourth discus thrower to eclipse the 200-foot mark.

That would be the last meet for Ciarelli and Elbettar for Newport Harbor, as the coronavirus pandemic resulted in the cancellation of the remainder of the spring sports season.

“It’s a little anticlimactic because of the virus and not being able to finish the season,” Ciarelli said. “It was definitely taking the fairytale direction at the start, with me thinking this was going to be my last year and Aidan coming into his presence and understanding of throwing far.”

Elbettar signed with the UCLA men’s track and field program. If he had not crossed paths with Ciarelli, Elbettar said he likely would have stuck with football.

Newport Harbor's Aidan Elbettar throws during the boys' discus at the CIF Southern Section Masters Meet at El Camino College.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“I will remember Coach Ciarelli as a great coach and the one who gave me the push to achieve great things in throwing, but also as a hard-ass that sometimes is annoying as hell,” Elbettar, a two-time state medalist in the shotput, said good-naturedly.

Ciarelli felt that his knowledge was meant to be shared. He shared it with those who asked, his only request in return being that they put in the work.

Students appreciated Ciarelli as a philosopher, one that preached Zen and the ability to move forward.

“Coach Ciarelli has left a tremendous mark on how I carry myself as a person,” said Cole Smith, a Division 2 shotput champion for the Sailors in 2016. “His philosophy surrounding integrating the concepts of Japanese teachings into life and athletics never escapes my thoughts.

“Wasa (technique) Ki (energy) Shin (attitude) is the staple of the Ciarelli success formula. Good Wasa (proper technique), efficient use of Ki, and a focused Shin are the necessary mix of ingredients for success. This teaching, when applied to any life scenario — be it a rigorous physical competition or cooking a steak — will result in enhanced performance.”

Ciarelli could crack about the worst of times, too. In looking back on 2010, when he had both knees replaced and battled thyroid cancer, Ciarelli quipped, “The doctors are the ones who beat it. All I did was lay on a table.” Ciarelli missed one football and no track and field practices during that time.

He coached at Honolulu (Hawaii) Damien (1979-81), Edison (1982-89), Newport Harbor (1990-96, 2005-20) and Huntington Beach (1997-2004).

Over the course of his coaching career, Ciarelli led his athletes to 26 CIF State championship meets. He coached 52 state qualifiers, who went on to accrue 33 medals at the state meet. Ciarelli also produced 32 section divisional and Masters Meet champions combined.

Additionally, he also coached a number of Olympians, including the Netherlands’ Rutger Smith, India’s Seema Antil, Canada’s Jason Tunks, and Americans Jarred Rome and Brian Blutreich. Ciarelli also worked with Cara Heads Slaughter, who competed for the United States in 2000 in Olympic weightlifting.

For more than 30 years, one of the great rivalries in Orange County track and field was the battles between Ciarelli’s athletes and those coached by Bill Pendleton, the longtime throws coach at Esperanza.

This past season was the last with the Aztecs for Pendleton, who was also seeing out the career of a promising thrower in Jeff Duensing, a Cal signee.

“Between the two of us, we have had the best thrower in the county probably 30 of the last 34 years,” Pendleton said of competing against Ciarelli. “No one is better at knowing the science of throwing and implementing it. Throwing is unusual in that the best coaches are willing to share what they know, and Tony has always done that.”

Ciarelli and Pendleton were both supposed to be inductees into the Mt. SAC Relays Hall of Fame this year, but the meet did not get held due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Although he said he knows no shortcuts to becoming great, Ciarelli did not guard his training methods like they were the family recipe for chocolate chip cookies. He remarked that it is important for coaches to be adaptable to the strengths of their athletes.

Tony Ciarelli coached 52 state meet qualifiers and 33 state medalists over the course of his career.
Tony Ciarelli coached 52 state meet qualifiers and 33 state medalists over the course of his career in high school track and field.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“The secret of coaching is to understand that not every athlete [is identical],” Ciarelli said. “You can’t make a cookie cutter and think that it’s going to work for everyone.”

Taylor expressed his gratitude to Ciarelli for giving himself and his brothers a common interest in throwing. He was able to compete against his younger brothers, Jake (Princeton) and Marty (UCLA), in an all-comers meet. Ciarelli coached all three of them at Newport Harbor.

“The most impactful mark that [Ciarelli has] had on my life is what he’s done for my family,” said Bo Taylor, who also competed at UCLA. “As I was at the end of my throwing career, I was able to compete in a track meet with my two younger brothers, which stands out to me as one of my favorite memories in my track and field career.”

Ciarelli’s influence has spanned generations. Marina throws coach Mike Giron, a 1999 graduate of Los Amigos, remembers aspiring to reach the level of Ciarelli’s athletes.

“When I look back at my own career as an athlete and as a coach, Tony and his athletes have always been the model program you compete against year in and year out and ultimately try to emulate,” Giron said. “It’s truly a who’s who list of the all-time list in Orange County history.”

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