Sports

Dettamanti returns to the pool, what he loves to do

Former Stanford, SHP coach is helping out his friend as an assistant boys' coach at Menlo-Atherton

By Keith Peters

Palo Alto Online Sports

The last time we saw Dante Dettamanti, he was being surrounded by his players and dragged into the pool at Independence High in San Jose to celebrate the first Central Coast Section boys' water polo title in Sacred Heart Prep history.

The year was 2003. Dettamanti guided the Gators to a 27-5 record in his first season as head coach, which turned out to be his last. As quickly as he arrived, Dettamanti was gone.

Getting Dettamanti for even one season was quite a coupe for SHP. After all, Dettamanti had won eight NCAA titles during his 25 years at Stanford, including the only undefeated seasons (1981 and '86) in school history.

When Dettamanti left Sacred Heart Prep, he returned to his travels -- he spent six months in Italy -- and began writing books on water polo. He also became friends with Marco Palazzo, who had played professional water polo in Italy for 20 years.

The two met at Stanford in 2007 when Palazzo was coaching the Stanford Water Polo Club's 14-under boys' team.

"I had heard of the legendary Dante since I was in Italy, from American players who played professionally in Italy," Palazzo said. "I remember the day I met Dante . . . it was love a first sight! I introduced myself and we discovered we had some friends in common -- Anne Marie (Keenan) Napolitano (Gunn's director of aquatics) and Giovanni Napolitano (Paly boys' polo coach). Our common origins did the rest!

"We started talking about water polo and I was immediately impressed by how many people from all around the world Dante knew."

Palazzo wanted to get into the next level of coaching and Dettamanti obliged, helping him find a job as boys' water polo coach at Menlo-Atherton. Dettamanti actually did more than that -- he decided to join Palazzo's staff.

"I did this to help Marco," Dettamanti said. "He's Italian (as is Dettamanti). It's his first coaching job and he asked me to help him out. It's fun. I enjoy watching the kids play."

Menlo-Atherton got a two-for-one deal with Palazzo and Dettamanti. In Palazzo, the Bears got themselves an energetic, enthusiastic coach with plenty of ideas and a wealth of playing experience. In Dettamanti, M-A got a 68-year-old coach who is a veritable legend in his sport.

In addition to the eight national titles at Stanford, Dettamanti won at least 20 matches 19 times. He coached 14 Olympians, including arguably the greatest (Tony Azevedo), and was named NCAA Coach of the Year six times.

Dettamanti last coached Stanford in 2001, leaving with an NCAA championship. Two years later he was coaching at SHP. These days, Dettamanti wears a black M-A water polo shirt as he helps Palazzo get his feat wet in the sport of coaching.

Dettamanti didn't get back into coaching because he missed it. Rather, he flat out did not. His friendship with Palazzo brought him back, if only for a short time. Dettamanti still has more books to write, clinics to put on and athletes (and coaches) to train while staying close to a sport that has been his life for 53 years -- as a player and a coach.

"If you train 30 coaches, you train 300 athletes," Dettamanti said. "I think it does more good to coach coaches."

That's why Dettamanti wrote two books "Understanding Water Polo" and "The Practical Guide to Coaching Water Polo."

The first book was for parents and fans, an informational text on the rules and how the game is played. The second book, for coaches, deals more with how to coach rather just the X's and O's of coaching.

"Most young coaches don't know how to coach," Dettamanti said, explaining that it takes more than just being a former player to get the job done.

Dettamanti has a third book in the works: "The Science of Water Polo." It deals a lot with the misconceptions of how to train the athletes, how dry land training (for example) doesn't necessarily apply to the pool. Dettamanti has a Masters in Exercise Physiology.

"It might not sell a lot in this country," Dettamanti said, "but I have a feeling the Europeans will get into it. They're big on science."

And water polo. As is Dettamanti, who spent many of his days in Italy watching the best pro teams play. He still follows the college game, as well, and was in Berkeley a few weeks ago for the annual NorCal Tournament featuring the likes of Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC.

"The sport has changed a lot," said Dettamanti, who has kept up with the changes. In fact, he helped Palazzo install a European pro defense at Menlo-Atherton. Thus, the Bears have been learning as they go this season -- especially after losing nine players to graduation off a team that went 15-12 and lost in the CCS Division I quarterfinals last season under coach Johnny Bega, who was in his fifth season.

When Bega left to become the boys' coach at Los Altos, that opened the door for Palazzo and Dettamanti and the ensuing challenge.

"Having Dante with me at Menlo-Atherton is something incredible," Palazzo said. "I learn from him every moment and the boys know how lucky we are to have a mentor like him helping us.

"What is amazing about working with Dante is that we understand each other without even talking. We notice the same things we saw in the water. Of course, he is way more advanced than me. His knowledge of water polo is unique in the world. I know, and all my players know, that when he opens his mouth he is just giving us pure gold. Basically, every day he does for us every thing we need to work on, and I can see the way my players get better day by day thanks to him."

Menlo-Atherton (1-0, 9-5) opened its PAL Bay Division season on Wednesday with a 16-1 romp over visiting Burlingame. The Bears will host rival Menlo on Wednesday (4 p.m.) in a likely showdown for league surpremacy.

Dettamanti and Palazzo will have the Bears ready.

"Dante is not just the best water polo coach in the country," Palazzo said, "but he is a role model for everybody -- in and out of the pool. He is in love with life, and everything he does he does with heart and passion. It's not a coincidence that he is from Italy!"

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