Many believe that Alabama’s legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant was the first to say, “offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.”
There’s no doubt that Laguna Beach High’s record-setting offense has been mainly responsible for keeping the Guyer Field stands mostly full this season. But it’s perhaps the defense that has the Breakers one win away from earning a shot at their first title appearance in 66 years. “I think that the offense owes itself a lot to the defense this year,” said defensive end Spencer Anderson.
Last season at CIF semifinals, Corona del Mar overpowered Laguna 41-14 on their home turf. Head Coach Mike Churchill said everyone on the team knew “if we were going to be better this year, that we had to be better defensively.”
The Breakers return to CIF semifinals tonight to face the Garden Grove Argonauts on the road. But they do so with a defense that is allowing 10 fewer points a game than last season. “I think that’s been the difference in our team,” said Churchill.
A stingier defense held Anaheim’s Loara High to just 238 total yards of total offense in Laguna’s 42-14 first round blowout two weeks ago. The Saxons completed only four of 14 passes with one interception, and the Breakers forced seven punts.
Last Friday in their quarterfinal matchup against Irvine’s Northwood High, Laguna kept senior QB Kevin Norman on the run most of the game, limiting him to only 124 yards passing and no TDs, although he did manage to scramble for two scores.
Garden Grove is bigger and more talented than both of those schools, and Laguna will have to be at it’s best on both sides of the ball if they hope to advance. “Everybody we play is going to be bigger than us. You can either whine about it, or you can go out and play,” said Churchill. “I think that’s really what the kids are doing.”
So how did the Breaker defense go from giving up 139 total points in their three losses last season to allowing only 202 points total in 12 games so far this year? Anderson credits an emphasis on tackling technique and proper positioning for much of the team’s improvement on defense. “Getting in position is a lot more important than just brute force,” he said. “When you’re up against a big, huge guy, if you just get set quickly, you can get in position better.”
Another factor is time. Many of the defensive starters are in their second season under Churchill’s system. “It always takes about two years for them to really understand it and to do it properly,” said assistant coach Bill Douglass.
Douglass and Churchill were coaching adversaries in the early ‘70s when Douglass was at Garey High in Pomona and Churchill was with Damien in nearby La Verne. When Churchill took over at Laguna before last season, he asked Douglass, who was at Laguna Hills High, to work with his running backs, special teams and defensive backs. It was an easy decision for the veteran coach and defensive specialist. “He and I both kind of see eye to eye on things and football in general,” said Douglass.
One thing the two agree on is keeping things simple. “You’ve got to work really hard at taking things that are really complicated, because this game certainly is, and make it simple for your players to understand,” said Douglass. “A good coach does that.”
Another point of agreement is preparation. Churchill and his staff spend much of their weekends studying game film of Laguna’s next opponent, hoping to pick up patterns and weaknesses they can exploit. “Defense is kind of tendencies more than anything else. Everybody’s got tendencies,“ said Churchill. “The more you watch your opponents, the more you can find out about them.”
But all the film preparation in the world won’t amount to anything unless the players execute the game plan with passion. “Some of our problems have been not coming out with as much intensity as we should,” said Anderson. “We just need to work on coming out harder.”
Nothing gets a defense fired up more than when they force a turnover or score a touchdown. “If we can open the game up a little defensively, then we’re going to put our offense in good position,” said Anderson, who pounced on a bad snap to halt Northwood’s game-opening drive. “Seeing that high snap and just jumping on that ball I felt really turned the momentum of the game around,” he said.
Douglass likes to set goals to motivate his players. Last year he challenged them to intercept 15 passes before season’s end. They ended up with 14. This season he set the bar at 20. They enter tonight’s game with 19, including a CIF-leading seven by senior cornerback Robbie McInerny. The Breakers returned four of those 19 for touchdowns. “You don’t want them easy goals, you want them to be up there,” he said.
Laguna has only one goal remaining this season: a CIF title. “We’re good enough to do it,” said Churchill. “We just have to make sure everything falls in place.”