As the high school athletes and their families gathered one last time for the annual banquet at the Manhattan Beach Country Club May 29, longtime Mira Costa tennis coach Joe Ciasulli surprised everyone by announcing his retirement.
Before they got started with the festivities, Ciasulli took photos with people and hugged some of them. That's not typical for Ciasulli. But this time, it was different.
“Bottom line, I think human nature, you look at Peyton Manning, you look at John Elway, you want to go out on top,” Ciasulli said. “When I won that CIF championship in the fall (with the girls), you kind of look at it and go, ‘I don’t think it is going to get any better than this.’ Maybe now is the time.”
One of his former players spoke about the announcement.
“I know I speak for many others when I say Joe was a respected coach who will be missed, and I wish him the best in retirement,” said Evan Fortier, who finished his Mira Costa career last year and is now playing at Bowdoin College in Maine.
“Joe consistently coached Mira Costa to many Bay League championships and deep runs in the CIF championships in one of the most competitive league in the nation,” said parent Frank Sillman.
Retirement had been on Ciasulli’s mind for a while.
He made his decision during the first day of spring break when he went to the beach with his wife. They enjoyed spending time together and said they needed to do it more often.
Asked if this was final, he said: “This is it. Once I make a decision I don’t come back.”
He did say he would leave the door open if Costa needed help with the transition.
Ciasulli also notified vice principal in charge of athletics, Stephanie Hall, that he would coach the girls’ team in the fall for the last time and then step aside as head coach.
In the last few years, Ciasulli has won Daily Breeze Coach of the Year honors more than once and said the players that made up the team over that time, “are a special group.”
“It was a great experience being on the Mira Costa tennis team these last four years and I will always remember my teammates and coaches,” said Matthew Poh. “Coach Ciasulli was instrumental in allowing me to continue my competitive tennis training and was supportive in my goal to play college tennis (where he will play at Carnegie Mellon).”
In 15 seasons since he took over in 2005, his boys’ teams won 240 matches with just 100 losses and one tie. He finished with an overall winning percentage of .703, which is excellent considering the talented teams he had to play every year in the Bay League.
In 14 seasons with the girls, his teams are 224-84-2 for a winning percentage of .722.
Since he took over starting with the boys, his boys’ and girls’ teams have never had a losing record and neither team ever missed the CIF playoffs.
The boys have won five Bay League titles, the last two outright. This year they went unbeaten in league for the first time under Ciasulli.
In the CIF-Southern Section playoffs, Mira Costa reached the quarterfinals four times, semifinals twice (the last time in the Open Division).
In CIF-State, Mira Costa made it to the SoCal Regionals three times reaching the semifinals in 2018.
The girls have reached the CIF-Southern Section quarterfinals seven times and won the Division 1 championship in 2018.
They competed at state once.
Mira Costa had a losing season the year before Ciasulli took over. He turned it around quickly.
“In my opinion, much of his success came through his recognition of the value of the sport, particularly tennis, in our development not only as athletes but as people,” Fortier said. “The values and experiences we gained on the tennis court could be applied over much more than our four years on Mira Costa tennis, and Joe emphasized that tennis can be a life-long pursuit.”
Fortier added, “Additionally, his multi-dimensional approach to coaching gave each individual player the opportunity to succeed, tailoring his coaching to each player’s unique game style.”
Said another player, Kyle Sillman, “Joe has been a great coach and has helped me develop not only as a tennis player, but also as a person throughout my four years on the Mira Costa tennis team.”
Ciasulli was asked if coaching tennis was fun or if he enjoyed all the success the team had.
“Obviously it is a combination of things-working with the players year-in and year-out. It keeps you from getting bored because in high school every year you have a different crop of players. They don’t stay the same.”
Ciasulli almost did not take the job when it was first offered. He was a basketball player and coach. He had never played tennis.
“I was not a tennis player, I was not a tennis coach.”
He explained what happened that led to him taking over the boys’ tennis team.
“The tennis coach resigned weeks before the season was to start. A good friend of mine, Bob Fish, was the athletic director at the time and he said, “I need a favor from you, the tennis coach just resigned. We need someone to coach. Will you do it?”
He talked Ciasulli into it, but it did not happen overnight.
“I resisted him for a long time,” Ciasulli said. “He put on a full-court press.”
Ciasulli recalled Fish getting the vice principal and the principal involved. He took the job under one condition.
“I finally agreed to do it and I told him I would do it one season and one season only. I took over the team.”
The team was 4-16 the year before.
Under Ciasulli, they went 16-4 in his first year.
After, he went to Fish and asked if he found a coach. Fish said, ‘Yes-you!’
Then Maegan Manasse talked him into coaching the Mira Costa girls as well. He was even more wary of that at the beginning. He grew up around boys and was not sure if he was up for the challenge.
Looking back, he was glad those people were so persistent. It might have not ended this way.
“You never know what life is going to hold for you,” Ciasulli said. “I am so thankful I was able to coach tennis for the last 15 years.”
While he did not play tennis, he did watch some professional tennis over the years and one player he liked was a local product, Pete Sampras.
“He was a solid citizen,” Ciasulli recalled.
Ciasulli grew up in New Jersey and then went to the University of Pennsylvania to play basketball under Chuck Daly and Rollie Massimino. Daly would go on to win two NBA championships with the Detroit Pistons and Massimino would win one NCAA men’s basketball title at Villanova.
He went on to get a Bachelor of Science degree in economics from Wharton and a law degree from Columbia.
From there he practiced law for 20 years, 14 as a partner with the oldest law firm in Los Angeles, Mitchell, Silberbergh and Knupp (since 1908), with 150 lawyers.
His wife Shari was a paralegal for 20 years and was part of the team that worked on the sale of the Los Angeles Lakers from Jack Kent Cooke to Dr. Jerry Buss.
Ciasulli has been at Mira Costa since 1997. He has been AP exam coordinator and long-term substitute teacher.
“Variety never let me get bored,” Ciasulli said.
“He was always extremely passionate about our development, encouraging us to continue practicing in the summers to become the best we could be,” Fortier said. “His expectations for leadership and his values of hard work and dedication were crucial to our team’s success.”
Poh recalled the game strategy.
“One of the things I remember most is strategizing the team line-ups with coach. We would talk about the other high school team and their players and then try to figure out good match ups.”
Poh added, “He's a big believer and motivator in teaching us the importance of learning how to play doubles and using it to beat other teams.”
“I’ve had two boys play for Joe and during that time we found that he genuinely cared for the boys’ well-being and enjoyed strategizing with the boys regarding the match lineups,” Frank Sillman said.
Ciasulli was also more than just about the tennis.
“I felt Joe understood the importance of balancing school with playing tennis,” said Poh’s father Michael. “He always emphasized the boys keep up with their academics and as a parent, I appreciated that.”
And when it was about the tennis, it was about getting better.
“He believed in developing the team so that working hard at the junior varsity level would give you the skills to eventually play varsity,” Michael Poh said.
Five times Mira Costa won 19 or more matches in a season. Their best season was 2018 when they won 23.
Their best CIF ranking was 2018 and 2019 with a regular season ranking of No. 3 in Division 1 and the same two years final ranking of No. 4.