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Full Circle

For Coach Eric Healy, the Water-Polo team's near-perfect season marks a turning point.

This was a big game. One week before Thanksgiving, Loyola’s varsity water-polo team squared off against El Toro High School in the semi-finals of the CIF championships. Coach Eric Healy watched the team with his usual determination, betraying neither excitement nor pressure, and there was plenty of both.

First, there was that U word hanging out there... “Undefeated.” The team had an incredible run in the weeks leading up to this match, having not given up a single game. Mr. Healy knew well, though, that the record was a double-edged sword—none of it mattered in the water.

But if any game might be special—might bring him to the edge of the pool—this would be it.

Mr. Healy’s quiet demeanor and shoulder-length, bleach blond hair give him the air of a laid-back California beach native. In the pool, however, he is all business and commands the respect of the team.

He has devoted much of his life to the sport of water polo. As a teenager, he played for Mira-Costa High School, one of the best in the nation at that time, where came up against Loyola more than a few times.

“Loyola was a tough competitor. We respected them,” he recalled. Mr. Healy went on to attend USC where he played under then-new head coach Jovan Vavic, now widely considered to be one of the best water polo coaches in the nation, both for men’s and women’s teams.

A native of Romania, Vavic steered a disciplined, no-nonsense and very tight ship. Under Vavic, Healy rose to captain and lead the team to win the national championships in 1999.

Following that triumph, Mr. Healy began to contemplate his life post-water polo. He made some initial overtures towards a career in business, but his heart remained in the water. He was volunteering as an assistant coach at Mira Costa when a fellow USC teammate tipped him to the open coaching position at Loyola in 2006.

Mr. Healy turned to his mentor for advice, “Vavic told me honestly what coaching would require and that if I wanted to coach, he couldn’t think of a better place than Loyola.” Vavic had another reason to recommend the school—he was sending his own son, Nikolai, there.

Mr. Healy took the job.

He was happy to discover that he had a lot to work with. “There was a strong foundation and great talent.” He was deeply impressed with the spirit and values of the school, and set to work employing what he had learned at USC. “To be honest, I just started mimicking what Coach Vavic did with our team.”

Mr. Healy focuses on the fundamentals. During the season, members of his team are in the water at 6:00am, followed by weight training and afternoon game practice. He emphasizes discipline and teamwork.

Right away, the team began to show results. Their first year ended with 18-11 record, followed by a 19-11 in 2007. Out of the pool, Mr. Healy found that he deeply enjoyed teaching history as well. “I didn’t know that I would find it so fulfilling,” he said. “This is an incredible place to work.”

In 2008, Nikolai had worked his way up to Varsity and was now under Mr. Healy’s wing. “I didn’t treat him any differently,” Mr. Healy  stated. “All of our players are equal. I know Mr. Vavic would expect nothing less.”

At the start of this school year, Mr. Healy had an instinct the team would perform very well. A close game against Newport Beach was a  seminal moment. “It was a tough match,” he recalled, “they gave up points rarely and we were tired. When we won, you could tell that the guys started to see just how far they could push it.”

Game by game, Loyola continued to rack up impressive wins: Claremont, Dos Pueblos, Harvard-Westlake, Mira Costa, some of them with margins as wide as 20 points. When they arrived to the CIFs, they had gone 29-0 in the regular season and won the Mission League title.

Every once in a while, things come full circle. There Mr. Healy stood, watching his team face off against El Toro. They had come off their best season since he began coaching. His mentor Coach Vavic watched from the stands while his own son Nikolai played in the water.

Mr. Healy responded to the moment in trademark style—he just focused on the game.

And what a game. Loyola and El Toro played feverishly, staying neck and neck. It all came down to a single, last minute shot by El Toro that  gave them the upset and prevented Loyola from advancing to the finals.

The Cubs ended with a 31-1 record. Nikolai Vavic ’10 won the Mission League player of the year and Clayton Evans ’11 was named  “Most Valuable Goalie.”

“I am incredibly proud of every member of our team,” Mr. Healy said.  “We may have lost this game, but what an achievement this season was.”

Former Water Polo coach Ed Profumo gushed, “Erik never loses sight of the ‘bigger picture’. He is simply the best water polo coach in the history of Loyola High School.”

Look for Mr. Healy this summer and you will find him by the pool. Not relaxing. Preparing.