End of an Era for Eccles, Merced High aquatics

Merced aquatics coach Eccles decides to hang up his whistle

May 13, 2013 

Steve Eccles and his voice will be missed.

As a water polo and swimming coach at Merced High the past 19 years, Eccles' booming voice is easily recognizable.

"I know I've had dreams of Eccles yelling at me from the pool deck," said senior Brett Fogelberg. "He's loud. Coach Eccles used to tell us he was shy when he was in school. That is impossible to believe."

Eccles surprised people in the water polo and swimming community when he made it known he was retiring from coaching after this year. Saturday's Sac-Joaquin Section Championships at Tokay High in Lodi will be his last swim meet.

Eccles is a big reason Merced has been so dominant in the pool during his tenure.

"He's been everything to the program the entire time he's been here," said Merced swimming coach Kit Gratton, who will be taking over the boys water polo program too. "He's done the logistics. He leads by example. His teams are always the hardest working group. There hasn't been an area he hasn't played a significant part in.

"He's helped develop the younger kids. He's helped put together schedules for all levels. He really has big shoes to fill."

Gratton came to Merced High from Buhach Colony nine years ago and has taken some of the load off of Eccles' shoulders by taking the lead with the swimming program.

Together they've helped create a swim dynasty at Merced that has seen the Bears boys win five straight Central California Conference championships and the girls win four league titles in a row.

The thought of retiring has been on Eccles' mind the last couple years. For someone who coaches with the intensity of a cage fighter, Eccles knows the time is right.

"I've been coaching for a long time, 30 years," Eccles said. "I've been thinking about it the last couple years. Coaching is a lot of work. Schools are asking more and more from you in the classroom and I work hard at that, too.

"I'm 53 years old. I'm getting tired. I'm losing some of that fire."

Eccles spent the first 11 years of his coaching career coaching water polo and swimming at the junior college level. He had two stints as an assistant at Merced College under legendary coach Bob Pollitt and also coached at West Valley in Saratoga.

Eccles then took over the boys water polo program at Merced High in 1994 and led the Bears to a section championship in his first season. He reached the section title games in 1997 and 1998, losing to Davis of Yolo both years.

It's been quite a career that includes seven CCC boys water polo titles, six CCC girls swimming titles and a 399-206 career record in water polo.

He'll definitely be missed.

"I don't think he'll completely disappear, but it's going to be odd for the juniors and sophomores not to have him around all the time," said senior Alison Miller.

"For the amount of success the program has had, he's had to put in a lot of work. There are days where he's at the pool at 5:30 in the morning for practice and doesn't leave until 7:30 at night after afternoon practice. It's practice, school, practice."

Eccles has always been the type of coach who asks a lot from his players.

He's big on effort, which was what made him an impact player at UC San Diego despite playing at 142 pounds.

He's always been honest with his players and it's something his players come to respect.

"Coach Eccles has been coaching me since seventh grade," Fogelberg said. "I've always looked up to him and enjoyed playing for him. We've had our share of arguments where we've butted heads, but it's hard for me to be mad at Eccles.

"I wouldn't be the player I've become without him. I needed a coach like him to kick me in the butt every once in a while. He's not going to cupcake anything. He's going to tell you how it is and you can take it or leave it. It may take you a week, or a game or two to realize what he said may help you."

Despite all the championships and impressive wins Eccles has accumulated during his career, he takes the most pride in the impact he's had on the lives of his players.

"I think what I'm most proud of is seeing the kids achieve things they never believed they could achieve," Eccles said. "I've had a lot of kids go on to play Division I water polo or junior college water polo. I've had players go on to coach or referee. It makes me think I've helped instill a love for the game."

Here are some of Coach Eccles' accomplishments:

- Career record of 399 wins and 206 losses as the Merced High boys water polo coach. - His water polo teams played in 3 section championship games winning 1 section championship.

- A total of 7 league championships in water polo.

- A total of 6 league championships as girls swimming head coach.

Swimmers to watch at Saturday's Sac-Joaquin Section Championships

Brad Hoppe (Golden Valley), 100 Breaststroke

Bret Fogelberg (Merced), 50, 100 Freestyle

Alison Miller (Merced), 200, 500 Freestyle

Noelle Farrar (Buhach Colony), 100 Freestyle

Josh Fluetsch (Merced), 200, 500 Freestyle

Hans Van Warmderdam (Atwater), 100 Freestyle, 100 Backstroke

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