As the current school year began, expectations were high for Laguna Beach High’s defending CIF champion boys water polo team. The girls’ volleyball team had lost some offensive firepower but was still expected to hold its own. And few knew what to expect from a football team that had lost the heart and soul of its record-setting air attack. By year’s end, all three sports would reveal some surprises that no one expected.
Last spring, athletic director Mike Churchill took the head football coaching duties from Jonathon Todd, who stepped down after four years to spend more time with his family. Churchill could no longer count on record-making former players Austin Paxson and Chris Paul. So the rookie coach with a veteran’s resume began laying the groundwork for a new-look team that would be very much old school.
Even without the outside scoring punch of graduates Chanel Stewart and MacKenzie Hester, the volleyball team got off to a spectacular start, rolling to the finals at the preseason Queens Tournament where they gave nationally-ranked Dos Pueblos all it could handle in a 2-0 loss. At the time, senior Caroline Holte said, “Usually this early in the season, the setters are still trying to find their balance with the hitters. Luckily we had a lot of cohesiveness and we jelled well.”
The strength of that cohesiveness was tested early, as Laguna opened the regular season 0-3 against a rock-solid schedule of Corona del Mar, Newport Harbor and San Diego’s Torrey Pines. Still, the future looked bright for senior setter Allison Palmer and a trio of hitters that included a freshman phenom, whose above-the-net play would turn the local volleyball scene upside down.
The Breakers water polo team had the considerable talents of all-CIF goalie Erik Henrikson patrolling the cage and the scoring prowess of D-III player of the year Nolan McConnell. But when Tyler Mancuso and Spencer Dodson graduated, Laguna lost a third of the total goals it had scored in winning the CIF title. It was clear that McConnell was in for a brutal season of double and triple teams unless someone stepped up to provide the kind of scoring consistency that would keep opposing defenses honest.
To capitalize on a talented stable of runners, Churchill drilled his football team all summer on the finer points of the Delaware Wing T, a run-oriented motion offense he employed in winning back-to-back CIF titles with Riverside Poly in the early ‘80s.
With senior Norton Penney, juniors Drake Martinez and Robert Clemons, and sophomore Nathan Lancaster executing Churchill’s plays to perfection, Laguna racked up more than 1,000 rushing yards in pummeling its first two opponents by a combined score of 128-47. “I’ve been saying all summer, we’re going to be good,” said Churchill at the time.
Churchill’s backfield weren’t the only runners chasing school records. Natasha Strickland became Laguna’s first three-time league champ in cross-country, leading her team back to state finals after a one-year absence. The senior also set a new school record on the Mt. SAC course at CIF finals.
Meanwhile, volleyball lovers were making their way to Dugger gym to see the county’s best setter and its newest hitting sensation strike fear into opposing defenses. Palmer’s 689 assists earned her first team all-CIF and all-county honors. The majority of those assists went to Alyse Wallace Ford, the only freshman to make first team all-CIF. Wallace-Ford’s 456 kills shattered Dana Hutchinson’s freshman team record of 341.
In the pool, Riley Thomas, a junior transfer from Woodbridge, proved to be the perfect scoring compliment to McConnell. The pair combined for more than half of the team’s 385 goals and nearly a third of its 288 steals on the season. Whether Thomas’ contributions were a necessary component of the Breakers second straight title is anyone’s guess. But Laguna probably wouldn’t have outscored its four postseason opponents 68-22 without him.
The volleyball team rebounded from a tough start to post another solid season, which included victories over Dos Pueblos, Mira Costa and Orange County’s then top-ranked Edison. The Breakers fell in CIF semi finals to archrival Corona del Mar and gave a packed and passionate Dugger gym crowd one last thrill.
Ironically, Laguna’s football season also ended at home against Corona del Mar in CIF semi finals. A huge Guyer Field crowd won’t soon forget two CIF wins and a laundry list of jaw-dropping stats that made the 10-3 Breakers a team for the record books.
Orange Coast League Champs:
Boys Water Polo
Boys Water Polo
All-Orange Coast League:
Not yet released for fall season
Not yet released for fall season
All Orange County
Allison Palmer: Volleyball (first team)
Alyse Wallace Ford: Volleyball (third team)
Marina Paul: Volleyball (honorable mention)
Drake Martinez: Football (third team defense)
Nolan McConnell: Water Polo (first team)
Riley Thomas: Water Polo (second team)
Not yet released for Football
Allison Palmer: Volleyball
Alyse Wallace Ford: Volleyball
Nolan McConnell: Water Polo Player of the Year
Erik Henrikson: Water Polo
Riley Thomas: Water Polo
Samer Alkateb: Water Polo