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The Register's coach of the year, Ethan Damato, left, and player of the year, Aria Fischer, are both from Laguna Beach High. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen,Orange County Register/SCNG)

Girls water polo coach of the year: Ethan Damato, Laguna Beach

STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA BEACH - Laguna Beach’s girls water polo team featured an Olympic gold medalist, but that wasn’t the takeaway for many who watched the Breakers.

Yes, several observers marveled at the strength and skill of U.S. Olympian Aria Fischer. But just as many were impressed by how Laguna Beach, under the guidance of Coach Ethan Damato, enjoyed making the extra pass, distributed the scoring and didn’t overly rely on its world-class senior en route to an undefeated CIF-SS Division 1 campaign.

“Ethan gets so much credit for that,” Laguna Beach senior Bella Baldridge said of Damato, who has been selected the Register’s girls water polo coach of the year for a second time.

“He made sure that everyone was equal and he was really helpful making sure the team environment stayed the same even with an Olympian.”

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Laguna Beach’s players said Damato established strong team chemistry in multiple ways.

Goalie Thea Walsh recalled how Damato, selected CIF Division 1 coach of the year, held a team meeting in which each player shared something special to them.

“We learned a lot of things about people that we didn’t even know,” Walsh said. “There were some pretty deep conversations.”

Laguna Beach players also produced their own team bonding activities. Two days before the Division 1 final, senior Claire Sonne led Laguna Beach in serving dinner for a local homeless shelter.

In the pool, Baldridge said Damato made sure to run plays for several players in addition to Fischer.

“He trusted a lot of other girls to be able to make the shot,” Baldridge said of Damato, who completed his ninth season as coach. “Ethan was really great at keeping the other girls’ confidence up.”

The numbers suggest that Damato succeeded. Fischer and Baldridge paced Laguna Beach in scoring with 103 and 82 goals, respectively, but Sonne (61), Sophia Lucas (51), Evan Tingler (39), Alex Peros (38) and Alana Evans (24) also scored their share of key goals.

“That's a credit to the coaching,” Mater Dei coach Chris Segesman said.

Laguna Beach also loved to pass. In a 14-4 victory against Dos Pueblos of Goleta in the Division 1 semifinals, the Breakers recorded 13 assists.

“I’m a big believer in team and that’s why I coach,” said Damato, who also coaches club with El Toro-based SET and the U.S. women’s youth team. “I love the idea of bringing a group of individuals together and trying to do something special. ... That’s always going to be our philosophy here, no matter who we have. We want to be a selfless team, and that’s one of the things the girls decided on (this season).”

Damato traces his beliefs in team concepts to his time playing at Laguna Beach for Coach Rick Scott, whom he considers a mentor.

“Things just made sense for me here and kept me out of trouble for the most part,” Damato said. “We’re a small town, small high school, small team. We have to play smarter. We have to play more together.”

Damato made sure that happened in 2016-17. The Breakers’ talent took care of the rest.

Contact the writer: dalbano@scng.com


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