After a three-year hiatus, varsity softball has returned with a vengeance to Laguna Beach High School. Leading the team to its early 3-1 record is a group of girls only a year or two removed from roaming the same Thurston Middle School grounds where the Breakers now play their home games.
In 2007, his first year as Laguna’s athletic director, Mike Churchill put out a call for softball players. “We didn’t even have nine girls that wanted to play,” he said.
The following year, Churchill again tried to drum up interest in the sport to no avail. The possibility of a third straight season without softball left him concerned that the program might be lost forever. “To be honest with you, I figured three strikes and we’d be out,” he said.
Down to its last strike, the program instead laid down a bunt and got back in the game.
A group of middle-schoolers made a desperate push to bring softball back to LBHS. “We were worried in eighth grade when we found out that we might not have a team,” said Haley Putnam, now a sophomore and star pitcher for the Breakers. “We started handing out flyers during our recess time and lunch.”
Putnam’s father Rick and Johnna Gherardini, mother of sophomore catcher Kennedy, carried the girls’ plea to Churchill. “They assured me that we had a bunch a young girls coming in,” he said.
With no coaching staff, sub-standard equipment and a badly neglected field at El Morro Elementary, the program’s return faced an uphill battle. What it did have was an eager group of wide-eyed freshmen that couldn’t care less where they played, who they played for, or what they played with. They just wanted to play. “Me and my friend and my dad actually had to put dirt on [the El Morro field] to get it ready,” said Putnam.
Answering Churchill’s call for a coach was Mike Hunter, a 15-year veteran of the boys game, who in recent years helped lead Whittier Christian’s girls team to the CIF division V title game. “Boys are boys, you know. They think they can; they know they can,” said Hunter. “Girls, you gotta tell them. And you gotta make them believe they can do it. And once they flip the switch on, girls take off. They’re phenomenal.”
Well aware of the program’s losing history, Hunter took the Laguna job because he wanted to build a program from scratch. “To come in and get a solid group, you know, that understood the game. I knew that I could build from that,” he said.
Churchill and Hunter decided the program would compete on the JV level the first year. “I didn’t want to throw them to the dogs,” said Churchill.
“It seemed like the right decision on his part,” said Putnam of her feelings at the time. In hindsight, though, she’s not so sure. The mostly freshman team went 13-5 last season and swept the league against more experienced players. “Clearly they didn’t know that we were coming,” Putnam said.
With a passionate new coach at the helm, another large group of freshmen coming in, and new equipment and uniforms at their disposal, the varsity program was indeed back. The only thing missing was a new field to replace the baseball-configured El Morro venue.
Enter the Laguna Beach Unified School District. “They gave us a top shelf place to play,” said Hunter, of the team’s new field at Thurston. “And the kids are playing like it.”
Earlier this season, five sophomores and four freshmen handed division II Corona del Mar a 7-5 defeat on the Sea Queens home field, which didn’t sit too well with their coach. “They had to run laps after the game,” said Putnam.
Hunter is confident the Breakers have enough talent and more than enough chemistry and enthusiasm to make a run at a league title and could even make some noise come CIF time. “That’s what I think we have here; we’ve got a bunch of believers.”