Some teams at Laguna Beach High have more storied histories than others, and a few are traditionally among the best in southern California. Yet rarely has the 78-year-old institution seen the kind of overall athletic success that 2011 brought to this sports crazy community. What follows is the first in a two looks back at last year’s athletic feats.
Being the smallest public high school in Orange County means Laguna teams often go head to head with ones drawn from far larger student bodies. But as this year proved, size doesn’t always preclude success, even if the California Interscholastic Federation establishes divisions based primarily on school enrollment.
Almost 65 percent of Laguna’s 1000 students play one or more of the school’s 22 girls and boys sports, either at varsity, JV or frosh levels. “Those numbers are just phenomenal,” said fifth-year athletic director Mike Churchill.
There’s no denying that talent and participation are keys to building successful sports programs. Beyond that, though, is leadership, not only in the coaching ranks. “We’ve been lucky in the five years I’ve been here to have two outstanding principals,” said Churchill, referring to sports lovers Don Austin and his successor Joanne Culverhouse.
Austin, who hired Churchill, made it clear from the beginning that he wanted more than victories from the school’s athletic programs. “We really didn’t talk about winning or anything like that,” said Churchill. “We were really talking about changing attitudes.”
When baseball coach Jeff Sears came to Laguna four years ago, he had to do more than that. “My job was to change the culture,” he said last spring, after his team brought America’s pastime into the consciousness of a town bent toward volleyball and water polo.
The Breakers rolled to a record shattering 27-3 season that included the first league title and the only two CIF home victories in the program’s history. Their year ended on the road in Westlake Village against Oaks Christian in the quarterfinals.
One day later, the boys’ volleyball team, led by league MVP Robbie McKnight, won their third straight CIF regional title over San Diego’s Francis Parker.
The year began as a young boys’ basketball team limped into January with a 7-8 record, following a dismal 1-3 showing at the Holiday Classic. Coach Brett Fleming rallied the troops to a 9-1 finish and one of eight Orange Coast league titles awarded to Laguna teams during the first half of 2011.
They went on to beat Carpenteria in come-from-behind fashion in the first round of CIF before losing an overtime thriller to Whittier Christian in round two, when junior Tyler Masukawa’s last ditch layup rolled off the rim.
The team’s 17-10 season wasn’t their best, but their second half finish showed the affect a change in attitude can have on the win column.
The boys’ hardwood counterparts put together a late season rally of their own to earn a rare postseason berth for the girls basketball program. St. Anthony, the eventual CIF champs, would end Laguna’s run in the first round, but not before seniors Emily Writer and Sam Garner respectively set career records for points scored and blocked shots.
Across Park Avenue, the girls’ water polo team was swamping the competition and raising eyebrows early during their first year in division I. They entered 2011 at 7-1, including wins over D-1 rivals Edison, Santa Barbara and Foothill. But things quickly began to turn sour as they lost five of their next six games against D-1 opponents.
A runner-up finish at the highly competitive SoCal Championships helped them regain their confidence. They went on to dominate highly ranked Newport Harbor in CIF quarterfinals before losing in the semi’s to the country’s best team, Dos Pueblos, in triple overtime. Laguna’s late season surge earned them the title of Orange County’s number one team.
With the radar aimed at the high profile success of volleyball and baseball, the girls’ softball team quietly returned to the diamond after a three-year absence, finishing 5-5 in league and 10-9-1 overall to earn a CIF at-large bid. Along the way, a lineup dominated by freshmen and sophomores defeated a senior-laden Corona del Mar team on the road.
While Sears was bringing baseball to prominence, Kari Johnson was re-branding boys and girls swimming as more that just water polo conditioning programs. “I want a swim coach that’s going to make swimming good,” Churchill remembers thinking when he hired Johnson.
He got his wish. In only her fourth year, Johnson led both squads to their first ever league titles and top ten CIF finishes.
Over on Eric Hulst track, junior Natasha Strickland, a name now synonymous with Laguna girls distance running, set the school record in the 3200-meter race, helping lead the girls to their first league championship.
A wild and successful spring ended with the boys’ tennis team, led by senior and league MVP Jake Michaels, breezing through the competition to make CIF finals, where they would lose to Viewpoint. But the year was only half over, with the best, and most unexpected yet to come.
Orange Coast League Champs:
Girls Water Polo
CIF Regional Champs:
All-Orange Coast League:
66 athletes in 14 winter and spring sports
Chris Paul: Baseball
Keaton Jones: Baseball Pitcher of the Year
Jake Michaels: Tennis
Robbie McKnight: Volleyball
Jessie Holechek and Jessica Shusko: Water polo co-MVPs
Tyler Masukawa: Basketball co-MVP
Chris Paul: Baseball
Keaton Jones: Baseball
Robbie McKnight: Volleyball
Troy Donenfeld: Volleyball
Jessie Holechek: Water Polo
Jessica Shusko: Water Polo
Melena Masson: Water Polo
Yoshi Anderson: Water Polo
Etianne Manetta: Water Polo