Alyse Wallace Ford and Riley Thomas are finding out that fitting in at a new school is easier when you can knock down kills at the volleyball net in record numbers or fire shots that regularly find the back of a water polo cage. These two Laguna Beach High newcomers may have adjusted well without their athletic contributions. But since they’re leading two of the school’s most prestigious programs into the post season, the point is moot.
Wallace Ford, who attended Ladera Ranch middle school last year, was understandably nervous on the Dugger Gym court for the first time. She was well aware of Laguna’s storied volleyball history. But, she said, after smashing the first of her 22 kills in the Breakers season opening loss to Corona del Mar, “It felt like I’d been playing for a while.”
To see her soar above the net and hammer down points inside the 10-foot line, it’s hard to believe she’s in her first year of high school. “You can’t tell she’s a freshman on the court,” said Coach Lance Stewart.
Which is why, at home games, students will often chant, “she’s a freshman” just to make Breaker opponents painfully aware that the bullet spikes whizzing past their heads are coming off the high-flying fist of a 15-year-old. “She obviously plays at a different height above the net than most,” said Stewart.
Her 345 kills through Wednesday lead the entire CIF southern section and broke Dana Hutchison’s (’08) record for kills by a freshman (341).
Thomas, a junior, transferred to Laguna from Irvine’s Woodbridge High, where he led the Warriors with 51 goals and earned second team all-Pacific Coast league honors last season. Getting a chance to play for the defending CIF division III champs has been a dream come true for the emerging talent, who just wanted an opportunity to be part of something special. “I knew [Laguna] was a lot better than my Woodbridge team, so I was pretty amped on that,” he said.
“The bottom line is, he’s an incredible athlete,” said Breaker coach Ethan Damato. “We knew that the moment he got in the pool.”
Thomas played soccer until, at 10, he joined the junior lifeguards in Newport Beach. Many of his fellow guards were playing water polo, so he decided to give it a try. Soon after, he traded his soccer cleats for a swimming cap and joined SET water polo club.
As a sophomore, Thomas was a very good player on a very young Woodbridge squad. Being the team’s de facto leader gave him little time to work on his game. After a season with the senior-laden Breakers, Thomas has blossomed. His 73 goals through Monday are second to senior Nolan McConnell’s 75.
The addition of Thomas gives Laguna exceptional talent at every position. “It makes it very difficult to double anybody,” said Damato.
Obviously a gifted athlete, Wallace Ford struggled to find an outlet for her talents. “When I was younger, I basically tried every sport,” she said.
When she was 12, her father suggested she try volleyball. After her first season with Laguna Beach volleyball club, she was not only hooked, she was also very good, skipping the 13s age group and going directly to 14s. But perhaps her greatest asset is a willingness to learn. “A lot of times, players with that much talent aren’t as coachable,” said Stewart. “She soaks it all in.”
Both athletes have enjoyed their first year at Laguna, especially the smaller class sizes and more teacher interaction. And with everything going well in the classroom, both are concentrating on finishing their seasons strong. For Thomas, whose Woodbridge teams saw little success, it will be his first taste of post-season play. “I’m pretty excited. A little bit nervous,” he said of the prospect. “I think if we play our best game, we have a great shot at winning [CIF].”
Of her new school, new team and new friends, Wallace Ford said, “It’s been amazing. We’re starting to mesh really well now.”
But to go all the way in CIF, she knows the third-ranked Breakers will have to be at their best to get by top ranked and defending champ Marymount of Los Angeles. “I think that would probably be our biggest competitor,” she said.
Photos by Robert Campbell