Most of Laguna Beach High’s nine spring sports programs have tough acts to follow after last year’s incredible run of success. Six of those nine won league titles. One made it to CIF quarterfinals. Two were CIF runners up. And one took home a regional state championship.
As a former college player with more than a decade of coaching experience at nearly every level, Scott Panaro inherits a boys volleyball team that Lance Stewart guided to three straight regional state titles from 2009-11 and a CIF championship in 2010. Stewart resigned last December to pursue a business opportunity though he remains the girls’ coach.
Panaro is well aware of Laguna’s volleyball tradition, but remains unintimidated. “I usually put very high expectations on myself,” he said.
With the graduation of all-CIF players Robbie McKnight and Troy Donenfeld, Panaro has some rebuilding to do. Look for junior Jackson Pries, who moves up from JV, to fill McKnight’s position at opposite. Senior Conner Cooper will take over as libero from Donenfeld.
Senior Austin Hillemann and junior Weston Barnes return to share outside hitting duties. Senior Jack Winn will do the setting, while junior Max McCarter fills one of the middle blocker positions.
Panaro is waiting to see who steps in as the other middle blocker, but he likes his team’s depth and chances to keep the string of state titles in tack. “I don’t see any reason why we can’t continue that,” he said.
Panaro’s inaugural season begins with a scrimmage against San Juan Hills Saturday, Feb. 25, at Duggar Gym. The regular season kicks off Tuesday, Feb. 28, at Edison.
Mike Bair hopes to continue the new tradition of success started by Jeff Sears, who last season led the Breakers to a record-setting 27-3 mark and their first league title in 48 years before accepting the head position at Servite High. “I am happy with this team’s progress thus far, and know we are capable of playing at a very high level this season,” said Bair, who takes over the varsity duties after guiding Laguna’s JV team to a 21-1 record last year.
With the graduation of its top three hitters and two best pitchers, Laguna will have to find new ways to put up runs and keep opposing runners off base. “Our pitching staff is young but very solid,” said Bair. “Our offense relies on execution and hitting the ball hard.”
Senior Travis Clawson (.411, 24 RBI last year), junior Larry Stewart (.385, 18 RBI) and sophomore Steven Harrison (.351,18 RBI, 3 HR) were first team all-league last season and should provide most of the team’s offense along Alex Ianotti (.314, 13 RBI).
Junior Robbie McInerny brings his solid glove back to second base along with timely hitting. Newcomers Grant Wilhelm and Preston GrandPre, who made a lot of offensive noise in JV year, could be ready for break out seasons as well.
Hard throwing junior right-hander Jackson Rees (5 wins, 22K) returns to a rotation that includes lefty Stewart (3 wins, 21K in 24IP), and junior Kurt Rebone and sophomore Grant Wilhelm, who won six each for the JV squad last season.
Calvary Chapel should give Laguna all they can handle in its hunt for back-to-back titles, but Bair and his players “like our chances to repeat as champs.”
The Breakers look to recapture last season’s magic starting March 1 with the weeklong Newport Elks Tournament. Locations and times TBA.
Boys and Girls Swimming
Fourth year coach Kari Johnson has set a standard for Laguna’s swim programs that has left little room for improvement. Yet it didn’t stop the confident coach from telling athletic director Mike Churchill that she thinks the boys have a shot at a CIF title this season.
With six leagues titles combined, two runner up finishes at CIF for the girls and a top five finish last season for the boys in her first three years, Churchill said, “I don’t doubt her.”
The loss of first team all-league Taylor Capobianco, Jessie Holecheck, Paige Watroba and Jessica Shusko to graduation leaves the girls lacking in depth. But the return of Lila Vera, Yoshi Anderson, Melena Masson and Jenna Knott, along with the addition of freshman Makensie Fischer, keeps them in the hunt for a fifth straight league title.
Seniors and returning all-league selections Nolan McConnell, Tommy Renner, Billy Wild, Erik Henrickson, Nicky Brunner and Samer Alkateb join newcomer Erik Juliusson to form the nucleus of Johnson’s CIF dream team.
The swimmers hit the home pool for the first meet at 3:15, Feb. 29 against Pacifica.
The boys tennis team returns all but two players from a team that easily swept its league matches last season and made an impressive run through CIF that ended with a loss to Viewpoint in the finals.
Gone are league MVP and top singles player Jake Michaels, and first team all-league doubles player Benito Romeo. Back is junior Teague Hamilton, the No. 2 singles player last season who swept his three matches against Viewpoint in the finals.
He will try to lead a core unit of all-league selections in juniors Morgan Lebby and Owen Webber, who, along with last year’s No. 3 singles player Austin Loomis, have the kind of post-season experience that could finally put coach Don Davis’s Breakers past two-time division IV defending champs Viewpoint, which lost seven to graduation.
The regular season gets underway with a road match against Foothill, Monday, Feb. 27, at 3 p.m.
The return of varsity softball to Laguna Beach High last season after a three-year absence created a stir, as a bunch of talented underclassmen earned an at-large post season bid after battling to a 5-5 league record and a 10-9-1 mark overall.
Coach Alan Ludloff, who replaces Mike Hunter, brings nearly two decades of experience as a baseball and softball coach to his new position. He inherits a team whose star player, Haley Putnam, is only a sophomore.
Putnam started every game for Laguna on the mound and finished with a 10-8 record, a 2.14 ERA and 123 strike outs in 159 innings pitched. She also led the team at the plate and on the bases with a .358 avg., 15 RBI, 22 runs scored, a .477 OBP, and 24 steals in 24 tries.
Sophomore Kennedi Gheradini resumes her duties behind the plate, where Ludloff said she “could end up being one of the best catchers in Orange County.” She finished last season hitting .350 with 11 RBI and 2 HR.
Juniors Corey Kent and Karina Riess, and sophomore Veronica Clancey are also players to watch, as are freshmen Halle Redfearn and Jennifer Sorenson, who Ludloff said will get some at bats with the varsity this season.
Sophomore Jordan Hartman, who returns from a knee injury that sidelined her for most of last year, should also contribute. “She has skills and attitude that will make her a special player,” said Ludloff.
Pitching and defense are the Breakers strengths, with youth and inexperience their main obstacle to success. “If we are willing to work hard and learn from our mistakes, we will reach our team goal,” said Ludloff, referring to his team’s aim to return to post season.
Laguna opens on the road against JSerra next Tuesday, Feb. 28, at 3:15.
Boys and Girls Track
The girls won their second straight league title last season, while the boys saw their string of four straight come to an end.
The boys will have a tough time getting past a talented stable of runners from Godinez. And the graduation of Devin Kent, the league runner up in the high jump, takes away one of Laguna’s only bright spots in the field events, although senior Ricky Delatorre should have the inside track to repeat as shot put champ and make a run at the discus title.
Key returners for the boys are seniors Jeff White, the defending champ at 3200 meters, and Ryan Jones (1600m), and juniors Barton Reece (200m and 400m), Kevin Tovar (200m, 400m), Tyler Nichols (800m), Spencer Anderson (300m hurdles), and Bryce Williams (triple jump). All have a chance of contributing points in the team’s run to a league title.
Senior Gordon Belyea and sophomore Chris Telez, who finished 1-2 in the JV100 meter race at league finals, could make some noise at the varsity level this season.
Led by senior Natasha Strickland, the defending league champ at 1600m and 3200m, the girls should dominate the distance events again. But the graduation of high jump winner Christianne Kinder, Christa French, runner up in both the 300m hurdles and triple jump, Samantha Garner, runner up in shot put, and Beverley Ronses, third in the 800m, takes away much of the scoring that helped them take the team title last season.
Still, the return of seniors Hannah Jonus (100m) and Tori Toma (200m, 400m), junior Grace Clark (3200m runner up), and sophomores Lolo Cant (400m runner up) and Tessa Hopper (100m) should give the girls a fighting chance at a third straight title.
Improvement from top JV sprinters Emma Barker (100m, 200m), Paige Toro (100m), Kyra Humphries (200m) and Tatum Moore (400m), as well as 100m hurdler Darby Winson could make them factors at the varsity level.
Girls coach Steve Lalim and Scott Wittkop on the boys side lead their teams onto Guyer Field against LaSierra on March 1 to open the season.
After last season’s runner up league finish that broke their string of three straight league titles, the golf team looks to regroup. But they will have to do so without their best player Andrew Palmer, a first team all league selection who finished third in the Golden West league individual finals to qualify for CIF competitions last season.
Returning seniors Tim Peterson, who also qualified for CIF with a fifth place finish in league, and Beau Bourne will lead coach Scott Finn’s young team looking to get back on track, starting with their season opener against Aliso Niguel at Aliso Viejo Country Club on Feb. 28 at 2:30.