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A Passion to Excel

March 14, 2022 - 7 minute read

The Ciallella Family

As students at Concordia, G.M. (Gian-Marco) ’11 and Sara (Wiese) Ciallella ’11 were leaders in sports—G.M. as captain of the lacrosse team and Sara as the re-founder of CUI’s cheer program. Today, happily married and parents to a little girl, with another one on the way, the couple is pursuing careers and family life with the same passion to excel.

“I’m the type that’s always squeezing everything in,” says Sara, an avid runner, mom and physical therapist at a SoCal hospital. “I like to spend time with my daughter and husband, and we do as many fun things as we can.”

G.M. works for the Anaheim Ducks, a National Hockey League (NHL) team, and today runs the club’s digital marketing strategy and campaigns, plus the esports division (the Ducks’ presence in video games).

“The NHL looks at our organization as a trendsetter throughout the league,” he says. “Our goal as marketers is to help grow our fan base whether that is through hockey development, through fans of esports, or by supporting live event aficionados.”

G.M.’s main role is to lead a digital marketing team that creates messages for email, social media and online ads, targeting audiences potentially interested in attending games.

“Our mentality is, if somebody goes to a game, they’ll love it. So how do we get people to go to that first game?” he says. “Hockey may have three or four games a week against a different opponent, and people may not want to sit at an arena four days out of seven. We have to figure out, what resonates with them? The opponent? Ticket prices? Giveaways? The experience? Food? Then you have to try to fill the arena.”

Marketing in sports is unique in the sense that, “All you have to do is walk into the arena and if it’s full and people are excited, you did your job,” he says. “Or you see shirts and hats in the grocery store, and stickers and flags on cars.”

Lately, his digital team is applying successful strategies used in ticketing campaigns towards bolstering their ecommerce space to sell merchandise online, an effort which is going “extremely well,” he says.

G.M., a San Diego native, was recruited to CUI for baseball, and met Sara on move-in day of their freshman year. When he decided baseball wasn’t for him, she invited him to play with her on the new men’s lacrosse team. Sara was playing with the guys because there was no women’s program. “I tried it and was a terrible mid-fielder,” G.M. recalls.

Then one day, the team’s goalie didn’t show up, and G.M. subbed at that position. “It turned out I was decent at getting in the way of the ball,” he says.

It all happened clearly for a purpose.

More than decent: he was named to the allconference team every year, the all-American team twice, and went on to play the sport in Europe, including on the Italian national team.

“It really felt cool,” he says. “I’m a type-1 diabetic and had always been an underdog. I hadn’t picked up a lacrosse stick until I went to Concordia. … A few years ago at church they asked us to talk about moments when you could tell God really directed you to go somewhere. For me it was clear and obvious. Going to Concordia Irvine was complete divine intervention.”

Sara, too, felt God leading her to Irvine from her native Washington state.

“My sister went to Concordia Irvine to be a teacher,” she says. “I came down for a visit in middle school and knew it was exactly where I wanted to go. It was the only school I applied to.”

Dr. Vance Tammen, the head of exercise/sports sciences at the time and a family friend, was “my personal cheerleader and on-campus dad, always checking in,” she says. “He told my parents, ‘I’ll keep my eye out for her. Don’t worry.’”

Playing lacrosse with a bunch of guys was fun, until opponents got more aggressive.

“I was getting injured and didn’t want to become a target at games,” she says. She pivoted to another passion: cheerleading. In high school, Sara belonged to an all-American cheer squad chosen to cheer in the Orange Bowl in Dolphins stadium in Miami before thousands of people.

“It was insane, the biggest rush I’ve ever had,” she says.

But CUI’s cheer program hadn’t existed for several years, so Sara made it her mission to re-establish it. She recruited twenty young women, created a proposal and walked it through administrative approval.

“I just decided to go after it,” she says. “I knew I was going to bring a good core of girls together who were talented and would be shining examples of leaders. I wanted to bring that level of excitement back to basketball games. Cheerleading is the ‘extra factor.’ They bring that sense of excitement and camaraderie.”

The Eagles men’s basketball team was competing in nationals nearly every year back then and “a top basketball team needs a cheer squad to support them,” Sara says.

The club was approved in 2008 and steadily grew. Sara served as its first captain and coach.

“As we continued to perform, people said, ‘Wow, these girls are really good,’” she says. “Gaining that respect took a long time. We designed the uniforms, fundraised and covered our expenses with bake sales on campus to raise money.”

The squad cheered not just at men’s and women’s basketball games, but at baseball and softball games, lacrosse games and pep assemblies and Midnight Madness.

“To see cheer go from a club to now being a respected sport—and they are very talented and do very well competing—that’s incredible because it’s exactly what we wanted,” Sara says.

Meanwhile, her friendship with G.M. was growing, though they came from very different religious backgrounds. Sara was a dyed in-the-wool Lutheran. G.M. had almost no church background. His mother’s family, which is Jewish, fled Germany before the Holocaust. His great-grandfather helped re-draft the German constitution after World War II, he says.

Soon, he and Sara began attending church together.

“Her family is very energetic in the Lutheran church,” he says. “She had a really strong foundation and has passed a lot of that along to me.”

He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with an emphasis in marketing and sports management, then stayed to earn an MBA during his last year of lacrosse eligibility and help coach CUI’s lacrosse team, which won national championships in 2015 and 2017. G.M. played on the collegiate allstar team and headed to Europe to play for the Italian national team. He competed as goalie in the European championships in 2012 and the world championships in Denver in 2014.

One thing Concordia instilled in me is, How is God using you and how can you give back? What talents and gifts and knowledge do you have to instill in others?

Back in California, Sara had earned her bachelor’s degree in exercise sports science, and the pair was married in 2014. G.M. went to work for the Ducks, went on to play in the World Championship for Italy, and continued to play post-collegiate lacrosse for a SoCal league until the COVID pandemic began; meanwhile, Sara became a physical therapist at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton (not the children’s hospital). She is board-certified in Neurological Physical Therapy (NCS) and presently leads a team in spinal cord rehabilitation. This means she helps patients with spinal cord injuries who have graduated from the acute phase in a hospital setting, but require several hours of rigorous therapy a day to regain functions in order to return home.

“Many are paralyzed and can’t stand, walk or get from their bed to a chair,” she says. “Some function at a lower level and are told by doctors they may not walk again. Others will walk with some assistance or hopefully regain their full independence once again."

In addition to her work at the hospital, Sara serves as a cycling instructor at a fitness gym in Anaheim, and an independent representative for Zyia Active, an athletic and leisure-wear maker she adores. She typically runs several half-marathons a year and is training for her next one.

G.M. is excited to reconnect with CUI again. He has worked with Professor Emeritus Curt Cattau to help shape some of the early plans for the new sports business program and is serving as an advocate for the forthcoming Eagle Athletics Initiative.

“I’m so interested in the project because my experience in the sports field has shown me what elements did and didn’t prepare me,” he says. “That’s one reason I want to help it get off the ground. I love to give back. One thing Concordia instilled in me is, How is God using you and how can you give back? What talents and gifts and knowledge do you have to instill in others?”

He was recently inducted into the CUI Lacrosse Hall of Fame and named the all-decade goalie for 2009-2019. He and Sara now attend Zion Lutheran in Anaheim, and they enjoy their small group where they dive deeper into Bible study with friends.

“It’s not random that we met on move-in day and ended up getting married,” G.M. says. “If you don’t believe in God, you’d say there’s no way you should have ended up at Concordia Irvine, or played lacrosse or met that way. It all happened clearly for a purpose.”

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