Tony Ciarelli loves his coach.
He hangs out with him on the weekends. He eats dinner and sleeps at his house. He even obeys his coach’s orders to take out the trash.
USC standout sophomore outside hitter Tony Ciarelli has been coached by his father, Rocky Ciarelli, for most of his life. Throughout Tony’s high school club and now collegiate career, Rocky has been on the sideline, usually pushing his son harder than his teammates.
“I’m not sure I’d be the same player without him as a coach,” Tony said. “I expect my dad to be harder on me than everybody else. That’s how his dad was to him, and that’s how I want him to be with me.”
There was little doubt about what sport Tony would end up playing as he grew up. While he played everything from football to basketball to baseball (the only sport he didn’t play was soccer, as he said his parents didn’t want to sit out in the cold and watch him play) none of those sports resonated in the Ciarelli family as much as volleyball.
Much like football has the Mannings and baseball has the Boones, volleyball has the Ciarellis.
Tony’s cousin, Allison Ciarelli, was an All-State volleyball player at Golden West College. His mom, Cammy Ciarelli, played four years at UCLA and won 14 pro beach tournaments in the early ’90s — most of them with three-time Olympian Holly McPeak. Rocky played at Long Beach State for three years and then in several professional indoor events before coaching for 24 years at Huntington Beach High School and, for the past two years, at USC as a volunteer assistant coach.
Considering that Tony is the youngest out of all his cousins, he was immersed in volleyball almost from birth. As a toddler, he could be found at the beach playing “pepper,” a game involving digging and setting the ball, with his dad. Cammy was still on the professional tour when Tony was young, so while she was playing, Rocky and Tony would be on another part of the beach, chiseling another name into the lineage of Ciarelli volleyball players.
“He did that everyday from the time he was 3 to 7,” Rocky said. “That was his entertainment. We’d go in the water and come out and he’d want to play pepper. That was his thing.”
As he got older, Tony would hang around his father’s friends while they played, often playing the role of setter, and at the middle school camps Rocky ran. As a third-grader, he lined up across from kids twice his age.
“I want to be the best at everything I do, and the only way to do that is by playing people better than you,” Tony said.
This trend continued at Huntington Beach High School, where Tony made the varsity team as a sophomore. Both Rocky and Tony said that was the most difficult time in their father/coach relationship. As the youngest player on the squad, Rocky was pretty hard on young Tony.
Tony said Rocky only kicked him out of practice once during his high school career, but there were times when Tony and Rocky would come home from practice and Tony wouldn’t talk to Rocky until the next day.
“A couple of times I probably went a bit over the top,” Rocky said. “But the next day we would usually talk about it and figure it out. It was tough for him because, when he would come home and want to vent about the coach being an idiot, he would have to tell his mom. That’s kinda how it worked.”
The Ciarellis have done a good job separating volleyball and family life, but this isn’t easy considering that, at the Ciarelli home, volleyball is family.
Just take a stroll down to Huntington Beach on a Sunday afternoon, and you can usually find the extended family gathered together for dinner and volleyball.
But this isn’t a fun, festive game. This is a my-team-is-going-to-beat-your-team-30-to-zero, cutthroat, no-mercy game.
“You will never meet a more competitive family than mine,” Tony said. “Everyone gets mad when they lose, especially me. I’m not allowed to jump because I’m the only one still playing volleyball, but I still only get beaten every once in a while. It’s not fun and games. At the Ciarellis’ beach volleyball games, everybody wants to win.”
This competitive spirit has bonded Tony and Rocky on and off the court.
“We have arguments, but we both have handled it well because, whether it’s at home or on the court, both of us know we want to win more than anything,” Tony said.
The Ciarellis have won — a lot. Rocky was the coach of Tony’s U-18 club team that won four major tournaments, including a gold medal at the Junior Olympics. He calls coaching his son, “the greatest thing in the world.”
Now, there’s another championship that the father/son duo have set sights on. With Rocky on the sidelines and Tony providing the kills, the Ciarellis hope they can celebrate an NCAA national championship on the court in California this year, together.
And Tony wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love my dad. I’d miss him if he wasn’t here.”
“Spittin’ Sports” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this article visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org.