Laguna Beach High welcomes two new faces to its head coaching ranks this fall, as Lance Stewart and Mike Churchill, two of the school’s most successful coaches, stepped down from their respective programs following last season.
After a 21-4-1 record, an Orange Coast league title, and back-to-back CIF final four appearances over the past two seasons, Churchill, the school’s athletic director and head football coach, handed his headset to Corey Brown, a three-year varsity assistant and head coach of the frosh/soph team for the past two seasons.
The heart of the Breakers record-setting offense was gutted by graduation. Drake Martinez, Robert Clemons III and Robbie McInerny, who combined scored 66% of the team’s points last season, are now playing Division 1 college ball for Nebraska, Yale and Cal, respectively.
Larry Stewart, who directed Churchill’s Delaware T offense for two seasons from the quarterback position, is now at Saddleback College. Still, Brown doesn’t see any need to panic. “We’re definitely not pushing the reset button,” he said. “We’ll be all right.”
Raul Papaleo, a former AVP professional and member of the Puerto Rican national team, takes over the girls’ volleyball program from Stewart, who compiled a 199-73 match record over nine seasons, winning back-to-back CIF titles in 2006-07. “There’s some pressure to it I guess,” said Papaleo of taking over for the local legend. “It’s a challenge, but I like it.”
Papaleo’s situation is similar to Brown’s. Laguna lost four starters and 30% of its kills to graduation. And to make things more difficult for the new coach, junior setter Briana Boyd, the heir apparent to Sevana Dvorak (695 assists last season), tore her ACL at the end of the club volleyball season and will miss the entire year.
The good news for Papaleo is that the team’s two best hitters from last season are back. First team all-CIF and league MVP Alyse Wallace Ford (488 kills) and all-league Sabrina Stillwell (141 kills), both juniors, will anchor a starting lineup that has no seniors and will feature several sophomores. “I’m excited about the future,” said Papaleo of his young squad.
The experienced college, high school and club coach took his young team to the fifth annual Queens Court preseason tournament in Anaheim last weekend and was pleased to see the girls all ready beginning to mesh as a team. They finished fifth out of 16 teams in the elite division with a 4-2 record.
With all that youth, Papaleo knows the key to going deep in CIF will be “finding the right combination of players on the court,” he said. “We want to win now, but I do understand that it’s going to take some time.”
Other players who will see plenty of court time as Papaleo looks for the right mix are sophomores Cameron Dorn, Aspen Roche, Kelsey Paul and Sage Patchell. In the meantime, he plans to “grow them from the bottom up to create a good foundation,” he said.
Senior running back Nathan Lancaster, who finished second to Martinez last season in rushing yards (1,094) and total points (114), will join fellow senior RB Andres DelaRosa and sophomore QB Jack Simon as they try to revive Churchill’s wildly successful Delaware T motion offense behind an offensive line anchored by junior Nathan Wylie (6’1”, 210) that Brown said is “bigger this year than we were last year.”
Simon, who led Brown’s freshman squad to a 7-3 overall record and 4-1 in league play last season, earned the starting nod at QB over senior Keaton Martinez (6’3”), whose height and speed make him more valuable as a wing back and receiver. “We’re lucky to have a versatile player like Keaton,” said Brown.
Papaleo’s playing career included NCAA All American and MIVA Player of the Year honors in 1992, the 1996 AVP Rookie of the Year, and appearances with the Puerto Rico national team in the 2004 Olympics and the 2003 Pan American games, where he won a bronze medal.
He has enjoyed his experience so far in Laguna, as many parents have voiced their approval of his calm courtside demeanor and the way he is able to motivate his players. His style is modeled after the college coach who had the biggest impact on him. “I really liked the way he influenced players, not only to became better players but to become better people,” he said.
Taking his cue from his predecessor Churchill, Brown stresses hard work and preparation to his players. Whether it’s working on the weekends, working mornings or working after school, “they’ve done everything we’ve asked,” said Brown.
Brown hopes his guys will have what it takes to build on Laguna’s recent emergence as a league and CIF front-runner. “I think it’s an attitude. I think it’s an expectation,” said Brown. “We have a great group of seniors who are just really focused on continuing our success here at Laguna Beach.”
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