By Robert Campbell | LB Indy
Twenty five years ago, seven boys from Laguna Beach High School went to Fresno on Thanksgiving weekend and did what few expected: they captured the school’s first cross country state championship. “We were all absolutely shocked at what we did,” said the team’s number four runner Dave Brobeck (‘91), who went on to coach his alma mater to its other two titles in ‘04 and ’09.
“It was an incredible ride. I can’t believe it’s 25 years later,” said David Crain (‘90), who led Laguna to victory in ‘89, finishing seventh overall to become the school’s first all-State runner since the meet was established two years earlier.
Brobeck remembers “an unlikely and dysfunctional group of kids” coming together as Coach Stuart Calderwood “sort of massaged all of our egos and personalities and got us to have that singular vision.”
“[Calderwood] kept us together,” echoed Crain. “He was just really good at making us all better.”
The Laguna seven were more than just better that fall day. They dismantled the heralded McFarland program, which went on to win nine state titles in the ‘90s, by a score of 65-127. “Everybody had to have the race of their lives to beat McFarland that day,” said Brobeck.
A number five runner for Laguna in the ‘70s, Calderwood was a teammate of national and world prep champion Eric Hulst, who put tiny Laguna Beach on the cross country map when he set three national age-group records during his freshman, junior and senior seasons.
In 1983 at age 26, Calderwood took over the boys program, a perennial underachieving team that hadn’t won a league title since 1972, when he and Hulst were freshman and the legendary Len Miller was in his final season at the helm.
And though Calderwood would occasionally share Hulst stories with his runners, the past didn’t matter to him. “What matters is building something with those five or seven kids you call varsity,” said Brobeck.
Calderwood re-built the program from the ground up, winning the ’86 Pacific Coast league title in his fourth season. Three years later, the now seasoned coach went out on top with a second league title and the state crown.
In 1998, Brobeck, now an English teacher at Laguna, had watched his beloved program fall on hard times since Calderwood left, finishing dead last in the Pacific Coast League for six straight years.
Inspired by his former coach, Brobeck set out to do a little rebuilding of his own. “I inherited a team that didn’t have matching uniforms,” he recalled.
The rookie coach knew he would never capture the degree of passion and vision that Calderwood had. “There’s no two Stuarts,” said Brobeck. “You can only really be yourself. I ultimately had my success just being comfortable with who I am around kids.”
Brobeck took Laguna from last to fifth to third to second and eventually to the program’s fourth league title in 2003. But that squad hit a bump at state and finished 14th. And for Brobeck, anything short of a state title amounted to failure. “I was really hard on myself those years,” he said.
With five of its top seven returning, including number one Max Mullender (‘05), Laguna looked strong on paper heading into the ’04 season, but no one on the team really thought they had much of a chance to win a state title. That’s because several other programs, including central-section powerhouse and defending-champs Carmel, stood in their way.
“I think that was possibly the best mind set we could’ve had,” said Mullender. “It almost seems like most teams do better when they don’t have that pressure on them.”
With all the pressure on Carmel, two seniors, three juniors and two sophomores from Laguna arrived in Fresno and handed the defending champs an unlikely six point defeat 95 to 101. “It was just an amazing day,” said Brobeck, his voice cracking as he recalled that singular moment when his guys took their place on top of the podium like he and his teammates had done 15 years before.
“The whole team came together, and each person pushed themselves beyond what we had done in the past,” said Mullender, who finished ninth overall to join Crain in Laguna’s all-State club.
Both former all-State runners competed in division one sports in college. Crain played baseball at Nebraska and is currently sales director for a medical device company in Colorado. Mullender ran track and cross country at UC San Diego and works in marketing and tech support for a southern California real estate company.
By now Brobeck naively thought he had “cracked the code” to success and would be spending many Thanksgiving weekends to come in Fresno. All he needed was a good freshman class every year.
That once-in-a-career class, the one coaches dream about, arrived in ’05. But it would take a four-year commitment from Brobeck—who now had two small children that weren’t getting any younger—to see that class through to its final destination.
Six seasoned seniors and all-State junior Matt Neev made the Breakers heavy favorites entering CIF finals in 2009. “The weight of pressure and expectation was enormous,” said Brobeck. “I was trying just to get them to calm down and run within themselves.”
When the dust settled, Laguna had run to a CIF record 27 points in a stampede over Big Bear that saw four of Brobeck’s top five finish in the top six overall, and all five scorers earned all-CIF honors for finishing in the top 15.
It was Laguna’s first ever CIF title, something that had always alluded Brobeck. “That was personally the most satisfying race of the ‘09 year,” he said.
Even more satisfying than his second state title, which came a week later when Neev and Blake Hofmeister earned all-State honors in leading Laguna to another thrashing of McFarland 69-122.
Having accomplished everything he could as both a runner and a coach, Brobeck went out on top after the’09 season, just as Calderwood had done 20 years prior.
Brobeck still follows the sport that he gave to and got so much from for more than 25 years. And with most of the key runners returning from last years’ boys and girls squads, which each finished second at State, he likes girls’ coach Steve Lalim and his successor Scott Wittkop’s chances this season to experience the thrill of winning it all.
“I can’t wait to see what they do this year,” said Brobeck. “Everything’s in place. I just hope that it all comes through for them.”
The LBHS cross-country season begins Friday, Sept. 5, when the boys travel to San Buenaventura State Beach for the Seaside Invitational, while the girls will be in Walnut Saturday, Sept. 6 for the Mt. SAC Fastback Shootout.
Frank Aronoff contributed to this story.