Laguna football opens its 78th season at home against Webb School on Friday, Sept. 9, with a new coach, a new starting quarterback and a lot of new faces on either side of the ball. The Breakers hope to improve on a 3-7 campaign plagued by key injuries and a defense that allowed nearly 40 points a game last year. “We’re going to be better defensively. We’ve got to be better,” said first year coach Mike Churchill, also in his fifth year as athletic director.
To improve the team’s overall play, especially the defense, Churchill instituted an off-season weight program that has paid off. “We’ve got some respectable strength now,” he said.
Another benefit of hitting the weights is “the stronger your joints are and your muscles are, the less chance you have of getting hurt,” Churchill said.
The five-time coach of the year is no stranger to the sidelines. His career began in the mid-70s and includes stints with three colleges and five high schools. Along the way his teams won eight league championships, and his 1983-84 Riverside Poly squads won back-to-back CIF and state titles. “We hope he brings [success] to Laguna,” said player Robert Clemons.
Clemons is the most versatile member of the team and arguably its most valuable. He will play receiver, running back, inside linebacker, and return man on punts and kickoffs. “He’s never going to leave the field,” said Churchill.
With the graduation of the record-setting pass-catch duo Austin Paxson and Chris Paul, the Breakers are going to need everything they can get from Clemons, who finished last season with 1,171 all purpose yards and six TDs.
While Clemons expects to get plenty of opportunities to showcase his offensive and special teams skills, he is perhaps most excited about his move from defensive back to inside linebacker, where he hopes to stifle the flow of opposing running backs through Laguna’s defensive line. “I’m ready to go hit people,” he said.
Last season, Laguna’s defense allowed more than 260 yards a game on the ground, including 484 by Saddleback’s Luis Soto in the season finale, a game the Breakers won on the back of Paul’s school-record five TD receptions. In an earlier game against eventual league champs Estancia, the Breakers yielded 229 yards rushing to sophomore Robert Murtha, a threat they will have to contend with again this season.
“[Murtha] ain’t going to have 200 yards. I’ll tell you that right now,” said a confident Churchill.
The coach will use a run-oriented offensive scheme that is designed to run the clock and give his defense time to recover. Respites were few for defensive players on last season’s pass happy squad. “I think that’s going to make us a better defensive team,” he said.
Churchill favors quality over quantity when it comes to the running game. He plans to start the season with a handful of power sweeps and off-tackle running plays that will take advantage of a strong backfield. “We don’t have a lot of plays to begin with, but we’re going to learn how to run them right,” he said.
A healthy Norton Penney, Jr., who averaged 5.29 yards per carry during his injury-shortened junior season, is set to carry the load at running back. Junior full back Drake Martinez and Clemons will get their share of carries in support.
Fans enamored by the passing game of the Paxson-Paul era shouldn’t lose heart; the Breakers still have plenty of talent to get the ball down field in a hurry.
Clemons speed and elusiveness make him a threat to score at any time from anywhere on the field. And senior receiver Derek Reigel’s size, strength and experience over the middle will make him a favorite target of hard-throwing junior QB Larry Stewart, who is coming off a successful season on the mound, where he struck out 21 batters in 24 innings of work.
Stewart, who is faster and more mobile than his predecessor, looked poised in the pocket for a sophomore when he filled in for an injured Paxson against Bishop Montgomery and Ocean View, the Breakers two toughest opponents last season.
Reigel snagged 28 balls for 400 yards and six TDs last season opposite Paul. If he is able to duplicate that effort, he will move into the number four slot on the school’s career list for receiving yards.
Churchill and his assistants Bill Douglass, Spencer Harrell, Joe Laffey, Corey Brown and Mike Colucci have their work cut out for them if they hope to get the Breakers past an improved Orange Coast league and into a 13th post season appearance. “We have enough talent to be a pretty good football team,” said Churchill. “I like our chances.”