Players on the Laguna Beach High softball team stride onto the field with a fresh enthusiasm this season, an emotional shift from the embarrassment they felt when games were called early under so-called “mercy rules” when their opposition ran up huge leads.
Parents and players attribute the change to a newly hired coaching team, head coach James Crawford, 26, and his father, Scott. They lead a sport trying to regain momentum after returning to the field in 2011 after a three-year hiatus when lack of interest forced its cancellation.
Crawford also landed a job at Thurston Middle School and as the offensive line coach for the high school football team.
He starts his day before dawn, opening the high school strength and conditioning room at 5:30 a.m. before heading to Thurston, where he works from 7:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. as an instructional assistant for special education. He aids teachers by assisting students that may need more individual help with reading, vocabulary and comprehension skills. By 3 p.m., he is out on Thurston’s field, where the high school softball team plays.
Crawford, who graduated from Mission Viejo High in 2009, says his high school experience was not stress free. “Sports saved my life,” he said. “A lot of my friends that weren’t in athletics went to jail or became addicted to drugs. I honestly give thanks to my parents. They’re the definition of hard working people that never give up.”
His father, Scott, has joined his son coaching the Breakers as the assistant coach. The elder Crawford, 62, is an experienced coach for the Mission Viejo traveling fastpitch softball team, SoCal Cougars, for girls 14-18. His mother, Mary Crawford, works at the Laguna Beach Ralph’s as a cashier.
After high school, Crawford attended Saddleback and Golden West Colleges, playing football. A football scholarship allowed him to earn an undergraduate degree in secondary social studies education and go through a certificated teaching credential program at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas City in 2016.
When the positions opened in Laguna, Crawford applied and was hired because, “he is making education a career choice,” athletic director Lance Neal said. As a credentialed teacher, Crawford is a rarity among coaches at the high school, who also was hired into a fulltime position, though not as a teacher. Most walk-on coaches work only part-time with the team as their only school responsibility.
The school’s previous softball coach, Nicole Lamottee-Dale, resigned last June. The team’s last season proved demoralizing. In an interview with team members, players said they were “tired of getting mercied,” meaning when a two-competitor sports contest ends early when one competitor has amassed an insurmountable lead. It is called the mercy rule because it spares further humiliation for the loser.
According to Scott Crawford, “it was like a car going down a cliff.”
James Crawford says he is a motivator in his style of coaching. “You have to be positive and give praise; they deserve to be winners,” he said.
This season, the father-son coaching team has produced more team wins than the Breakers managed in the last three years combined, according to the elder Crawford. “I don’t like to talk about last year,” Scott Crawford said. The Breakers’ current 6-5-1 record ranks the team third in the Orange Coast League.
James Crawford says his goal is to create a culture and environment where the team wants to work hard and become successful through a team effort. Last week, he invited Thurston parents to a meeting to talk about developing a feeder league to recruit younger players into high school softball by holding clinics for conditioning and drills. Crawford already plans to hold clinics and camps for girls 9 and up this summer through the city’s recreation department, which has not offered any similar programs for several years, says recreation department supervisor Alexis Braun.
Crawford has also scheduled a team “food and fellowship” dinner with a visiting team from Oregon for a non-league game. After the final inning, the two teams will share a meal together at tables set up on the field.
Team mom Lisa Pitz said she is encouraged by the new team leaders. “They seem like wonderful coaches,” she said, who telegraph their confidence in the players. “They’re positive and they know the game.”
Team booster chair Nancy Glenn agreed with that assessment and expressed her gratitude that parents can discuss team issues directly with the athletic director. “We want to build a quality program to continue for years and years,” she said.
Crawford’s enthusiasm is energizing the team off the field as well. The team started fund raising and asking for assistance in relocating their scoreboard. The sound system is broken and the batting nets need repair. As it is now, temporary modular classrooms block the view of the scoreboard on the field.
So far, they have raised $3,000 for new equipment through donations from businesses and family members and plan more fundraisers shortly. Players ambitiously also want improvements on their home field to ensure it conforms to regulations for a post-season CIF game. At present, the pitching mound is not at regulation distance.
Team members Taylor Glenn, Lola Fisher and Mia Pitz took matters into their own hands and visited Athletic Director Lance Neal in his office last week to ask for help. Neal said immediate fixes to the sound system were corrected and he promised to determine if upgrades to facilities are planned. “I wasn’t here last year so I wasn’t involved,” said Neal, noting that each sport is allotted an identical budget. “We want them to be successful,” he said.
Taylor, a junior who is the team catcher, said she is excited to step on the field. “I’m loving it. A lot of us want to play in college,” she said, adding, “I always wanted to play in the Olympics.” Softball will be included in the 2020 summer games in Tokyo.