Santa Barbara Sports Figure of the Month: Mark Walsh

Santa Barbara High aquatics coach Mark Walsh is in his 20th year of coaching at Santa Barbara High School

He’s been The Dons water polo coach since ‘BC’ — Before (it was a) CIF sport!!

Now 20 years later of total dedication in serving as a highly-respected Santa Barbara High School teacher … and as a rare three-season-per-school-year-varsity-head-coach (plus club in summer) … and as a truly life saving swim instructor, role model, mentor, friend, cool guy and local icon …

And with a golden resume: 700+ victories (& counting) … 77 teams (51 school, 16 club) … 13 CIF crowns (8 girls, 5 boys) … seemingly year-after-year-top national rankings for any team he’s coached … and two Olympians (so far) …

And as someone special who has nurtured numerous student-athletes to the point where they were able to secure college scholarships plus cultivate many more for further success in life …

And as The Man in establishing our Santa Barbara region as a water polo mecca in Southern California’s wide world of uber-competitive water sports …

For this and more,  Mark Walsh has been named Presidio Sports’ Sport Figure of the Month.

“He’s very deserving — he’s a force on our coaching staff and amongst the best I’ve ever seen,” says John Becchio, SBHS Principal in his second year. “One thing that especially strikes me is his always calm and meaningful presence – he is definitely a leader and just a great staff member.”

“A fantastic coach totally dedicated to his kids … who puts in tremendous hours and personal time … and who could easily be a D1 coach but, instead, chooses to stay here at Santa Barbara High,” chimes Joe Chenoweth, The Dons’first year AD.

Mark Walsh, bottom right, takes his teams to Europe in the summers to train. The boys team traveled to Croatia this summer. (Ron Robertson Photo)

“Mark has established a dynasty of water polo excellence … and what I like most is his kick back attitude in life and his intensity and fire on the pool deck,” adds Rich Hanna, President of the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table.

“You couldn’t have picked a better honoree — he’s like that Ford F150 truck commercial: doing all the work and with a Cadillac engine!” embellishes Cathy Neushul, SB Water Polo Club Co-Director & UCSB Women’s Water Polo Coach.

All incredible stuff for the self-made Walsh, 40, who was late, by today’s standards, to the water polo scene …

“I was in eighth grade and my friends played so I tried it,” he says. “Well, it was so hard I wanted to quit. My Dad said it was OK – I’d just had to tell the coach … something I could never do.”

Instead, it forever shaped the life of this Orange County kid …

Walsh soon made the varsity team at Capistrano High School and played two years at Saddleback JC where he pursued dreams of being a history teacher.

Then up the coast to UCSB where he passed on a Gaucho water polo career to work and pay the bills, while concentrating on his studies.

He arrived here in the summer of 1992 and ‘got by with a little help from his friends’ – the Kittredges. It led to an assistant water polo coaching gig at the SBHS pool that paid $5 per hour in two-hour increments.

To make ends meet, he flipped a zillion burgers at Carpinteria’s The Spot and got some restaurant shifts at Acacia(now Cava) in Montecito.

Mark Walsh’s 2009 class of NCAA athletes included (l to r) Hunter Ploch, Lindsay Parrish, Lolo Blair, and Ian Gamble.

Times were not easy … but he juggled.

And kept his focus — ultimately earning his BA in Business Economics (1995) and with new sights set on being a stockbroker.

A local internship in this financial field confirmed it wasn’t really for him – that’s when a friend recommended getting his substitute teaching credential.

Walsh quickly did so — driving twice weekly (in addition to working & coaching) to Chapman College’s satellite program in Santa Maria …. and was soon subbing on the prestigious SBHS campus.

Throughout it all, he found his love in coaching …

Since ’93 – he served as assistant SBHS boys’ water polo coach and became head coach in ‘97.

In ’96, he additionally assumed head coaching duties for The Don’s girls’ team.

Then, when teacher Dave Kent took a sabbatical three days before the Fall ‘97 semester, Walsh was ‘at the right place at the right time” and legendary SBHS principal (the late) J. R. Richards offered a full-time teaching position.

“Mark is family. And like virtually all of his players’ parents, we consider him to have been one of those positive, major influences who every parent hopes their kids can experience. When our son’s (Ben) team lost their CIF championship game, Mark turned it into a lesson for life.
When our daughter’s (Sarah) team won the CIF girls water polo championship in the first year it was offered, it was Mark who created the opportunity for their success ….
Many consider him as their best and most influential coach …
Just as important, his players who never touched a ball after high school will always value the lessons they learned from Coach Walsh.”
— Joe Howell

Walsh hasn’t looked back …

Since then, it’s been a full load with teaching and with coaching boys water polo (fall), girls water polo (winter) and swimming (spring). Weekends were games, practice, grading papers and preparing lesson plans.

A teaching shift from Economics to Physical Education six years ago provided some relief on his exceptionally heavy load.

Also in ‘97, he took his girls team to Orange County to test their skills against these high-octane powerhouse teams there…

They ended up winning the whole thing – inaugural champs in this new CIF-sanctioned sport!!  (They won the tourney the year before, too!)

Along the way, the championships rolled along with some incredible teams …

Some incredible players …

“I always felt safe playing for Mark,” says Thalia (Munro) Ormsby (Olympic Bronze, Athens 2004), who, like Walsh, was on the way to a volleyball career until she ‘heard all the fun and laughter coming from the pool deck below the gym.”

From the moment she jumped headfirst in the pool, she claims it was great fun and knew it was the right place to be….

“Mark’s leadership and coaching philosophy brings out the best in his players. Everyone has roles. It’s all about ‘team,” says Ormsby, who is using a similar style in coaching young club kids with her husband, Brett, in San Diego.

It’s her way of giving back for all Coach Walsh has provided to her.

Further ….

“(Coach) Walsh always made sure I had the opportunity to do more, if I wanted it. He would find a way to make it happen. He’s always been there for me and I just love coming back,” offers Kami Craig (Olympic Gold, London 2012; Olympic Silver, Beijing 2008) who played for him in club and in her SBHS junior (’04) and senior (’05) CIF championship seasons.

American Riviera Bank

This award is made possible by American Riviera Bank

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Mark and Wendy Walsh, with three-year-old son Mason, are expecting their second child, a daughter, in early November.

And speaking of family….

Coach Walsh endured some trying times with his parents divorce when he was a young boy and his dad’s passing just as he was graduating high school. His mom died a few years later in 1994.

“Family has always been important to us,” shares his sister, Michele Grisham.

Mark and Wendy married in 2008. Their son, Mason is three years old and a baby sister is anticipated early next month or sooner.

“My new challenge is a ‘having balance in life’ — trying to be great dad and husband with every free minute that I have … and trying to be a good role model,” he says.

He credits the great parents and families of his teams who do so much – there’s ‘no way’ he would be able to do it with his teams without all their assistance and support.

And for the many whom he’s touched along life’s journey, well, there is no shortage of accolades here …

“As a friend, he is loyal to the end. As a person, he is sincere and caring. And as for water polo, he’s arguably the best high school coach in the Nation,” says Brian ‘Chuckie’ Roth – his post-college roommate (along with Walsh’s SBHS colleague, John Gannon), Best Man at his wedding, SMHS teacher and varsity & club water polo coach, himself.

“Soooo many people have come out of Mark’s program and been successful in life,” (Munro) Ormsby adds. (Mark says, “Seeing kids come back means so much to me, our kids and the program.”)

“Mark is the most dedicated student of the game that I know. He is THE Don of the water polo community,” Neushul exclaims.

“We are all exceedingly proud of Mark — especially when we learn of his amazing success with a new crop of athletes,” says big sis, Michele.

Safe to say that … in the classroom … on the pool deck …. spending precious time with family and friends … making the most of every opportunity …. our September honoree is truly one reMARKable guy!!

Each Month, Presidio Sports recognizes a local sports figure for their extraordinary contribution to the Santa Barbara athletic community.

It is our way to recognize those who are making a lasting impact in the sports community, whether it is an outstanding athletic performance, a lifetime achievement award, or perhaps a great example of leadership.

This award is made possible by American Riviera Bank

Find the complete catalogue of Santa Barbara Sports Figures of the Month HERE.

American Riviera Bank

This award is made possible by American Riviera Bank

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