Northridge women’s water polo team raises academic bar

Marcelo Leonardi, Cal State Northridge women's water polo coach, holds up photographs of two former players Kristin McLaughlin, left, and Jillian Stapf, who won Big West Scholar Athlete of the Year honors during their respective tenures with the Matadors.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The NCAA and its member institutions often refer to “student-athletes,” but the front side of the term isn’t often highlighted in a sports section. We asked officials from the Southland’s Division I universities to point us toward their best and brightest — the teams that made classroom performance a priority.

Here is what we found at Northridge:

Above the desk on the left side of his office is an acknowledgment of what Marcelo Leonardi considers to be his proudest accomplishment as Cal State Northridge’s women’s water polo coach.

It’s not a trophy, a medal, or even a certificate. And it doesn’t signify any amount of wins or a victory in a championship game.

It’s an assortment of photographs, 15 in all, each similar in at least one way to the next. They are of young college graduates, all Northridge women’s water polo players, dressed in cap and gown, smiling as they pose next to their coach at graduation.


Call it Leonardi’s Wall of Fame. Included are two Big West Conference scholar athletes of the year.

“These are the things that we strive for,” Leonardi said. “At end of day, you’re going to win or lose games and you might win or lose a championship, but graduating athletes and life after water polo” is the coach’s main focus.

When Leonardi was hired by Northridge as an assistant coach 10 years ago, the cumulative grade-point average of the team was 2.5.

With additional emphasis on academics, the team’s scholastic profile has risen in the five years since Leonardi took over as head coach. Last year, the team had a 3.19 cumulative GPA, the highest of any Northridge sport.

The goal for each of Leonardi’s players is to earn a 3.2 GPA — so they can qualify as applicants for even the most competitive graduate schools.

There aren’t many opportunities to play pro water polo, Leonardi points out, and the few athletes who make a living at it do not earn superstar paychecks.

“I think school is the way to go,” says Leonardi, who has a doctorate degree and teaches high school biology when he’s not coaching.

His players have adopted that attitude too. Marisa Young, a junior who plays center for Northridge and is also a member of the U.S. Junior National team, says she is brutally honest when she meets with recruits who visit the campus.

“If you’re not driven to do well in school, you’re not going to succeed here,” she tells them.

Water polo will end after college, Young says, but the education you receive is something a student will have forever.

Along with, if they play for Leonardi, a place on his wall of fame.