Coach’s Mission Validated by Award
When Jeff Sears heard a voice mail message about being selected the Orange County Register baseball coach of the year, the Laguna Beach High coach remained skeptical. “First I thought they were joking around,” he said, believing his friends were playing a cruel prank.
When he returned the call to the unidentified number, the paper’s sports reporter Steve Fryer answered. Sears was both shocked and humbled. “It’s a pretty special honor,” said the fourth year coach.
Fryer had watched the division IV juggernaut as it rolled to a team record 27 wins, even watching a couple games in person. “He just liked what he saw,” Fryer told Sears.
The program Sears inherited lacked respect among the community, students, teachers, administrators, other athletes and even the players themselves. “My job was to change the culture, and I think I’ve done that a little bit,” said Sears, who concedes that he’s “only cracked the surface.”
“He’s more than a baseball coach. He’s set a climate and culture that’s really important,” said the school’s Athletic Director Mike Churchill. “He’s made it important to be a baseball player at Laguna.”
As a high school athlete in Oregon, Sears learned from his uncles what it took to be a good player: hard work. Whether in football, basketball or baseball, Sears was always putting in extra time to make himself better. “That work ethic comes from the family; it doesn’t come from outside,” he said.
He carried those lessons to college where he was part of Cal State Dominguez Hills’ 1987 California Collegiate Athletic Association championship team. His coach, Andy Lopez, who went on to win more than 1,000 games in 28 years with four different schools, taught Sears that hard work is also the key to good coaching. “He played a huge roll in my life, on and off the field,” said Sears.
After his playing days, Sears served as an assistant to Tom Tereschuk at Chapman University, and Chris Conlin and Mike Gerakos at Irvine’s University High. He also spent time as an assistant at his alma mater. “You learn a lot from guys like that,” said Sears, who stays in regular touch with all of his mentors.
With a wealth of coaching knowledge tucked under his cap, Sears headed to Laguna to see if he could turn around a perennial loser. “I can tell you I saw the team play that he inherited, and they’ve come a long way, baby,” said Churchill, hired shortly after Sears.
Sears met with some early opposition as several players and parents were unhappy to see his predecessor Dave Dopf let go. The rookie head coach shut out the politics and got down to the task at hand. “My job is to make everyone better,” Sears said.
He follows his mentors’ methods. “He stresses academics. He stresses discipline. And doing things the proper way,” said Churchill. “You could tell the difference just by watching them practice.”
Sears led Laguna to a 44-44 record over his first three seasons, including a CIF victory in the wild-card round last year, only the second post-season win in school history. But .500 ball wasn’t good enough for Sears; he wanted to take the program to the next level.
For the Breakers to start winning consistently, he knew they needed team chemistry. The players got together and raised enough money to go to Hawaii for ski week. They left a bunch of individuals and returned a cohesive unit. “We cared about one another more than any team that I’ve had here,” said Sears.
With a chant of “all in” before every game, the Breakers began to win hometown supporters, who before this season couldn’t find much time for a sport that had never found much success.
One win led to another, and another, and another. They won their first 16 and swept through league play for the their first title in 48 years. By the end of the season, the stands at Skipper Carrillo field were overflowing with newfound fans as the Breakers, in come-from-behind fashion, won the first two home playoffs games in school history. “They realize now that Laguna Beach is a baseball team,” said Sears.