Laguna Beach High's softball program has continued to see steady improvement since James Crawford came on as its head coach.
The Breakers' win total has gone up in each of Crawford's first two years at the helm, and the team has turned into a playoff contender this season.
Crawford recalled that when he took the job, it was like he was walking in with a blindfold on. The Breakers had won just three games the year before, and Crawford was unsure of what pieces he might have in place. Did he have any pitching? What about position players who could hit?
Fortunately, the building blocks were already in place. Laguna Beach does not have a junior varsity softball team, so ready or not, those who wanted to play the game had been thrust into the fire.
When Crawford and company ventured onto the field together, Emily Thomas, then a sophomore, was one who caught his attention.
"Seeing Emily and what she can bring to the table, I was like, 'All right. We can make something out of this,' " Crawford said.
The Breakers had a young core. Thomas would be the innings-eater.
Laguna Beach certainly had its struggles in recent times. The program is three years removed from a winless season. In 2016, the Breakers went 3-16. In 2017, Crawford's first season as coach, they improved to 8-16-1.
This year, Laguna Beach has a chance to finish the season at .500 and become eligible for an at-large selection into the CIF Southern Section Division 7 playoffs.
Thomas hurled a pair of complete-game victories against Estancia in back-to-back outings to give her team a chance at the postseason. The Eagles are the No. 4 team in the section's Division 6 poll.
In Monday's road contest against the Eagles, Thomas struck out eight. She also helped herself out with a bases-loaded single to drive in two runs.
"We've been really trying to hit the corners," Crawford said of Thomas' eight-strikeout game. "There's a lot of good batters in our league.
"You look at the competition, and there are several teams that are highly ranked in all of the divisions. You can't just throw the ball down the middle."
The Orange Coast League currently has four ranked teams — Godinez (No. 2 in Division 4), Calvary Chapel (No. 3 in Division 6), Estancia (No. 4 in Division 6) and Costa Mesa (No. 2 in Division 7).
"Going through the years has really bonded us as a team," Thomas said. "We haven't always done well, but that kind of teaches you that the importance of the game is to just build friendships.
"It's been crazy, watching [our improvement] happen. It's really validating for all of the hard work that we put in. I don't think that it could have been done with just one person. It really shows that each person is dedicated."
The core of the Laguna Beach program at this point is its juniors. Shortstop Cienna Wunder and Thomas played together in Aliso Viejo recreation ball growing up.
"It's a great core, them being the juniors of the team," Crawford said. "They're the leaders. They're the muscle. They're going to teach the younger ones."
More talent has funneled in behind them. Freshman second baseman Rhys Campbell is one notable addition. She had a two-home run performance in a loss at Costa Mesa on Friday.
While the general school of thought is that continuity will breed success, Thomas says that the team developed another essential life skill in the face of the coaching change. Thomas and her teammates acquired a sort of independence, creating their own standards and expectations
"[We are] trying to create a standard amongst the juniors and seniors who have been around for a long time. Just working hard, but encouraging each other. I think that has been the main goal.
"I think it's mainly accountability. Our coaching has really helped us to stick to that standard, but I think having two different coaches throughout our time has really made us more independent players."
Thomas became interested in playing softball after watching her brother, Bayley, play baseball growing up. She said that her brother stopped playing at some point in high school.
Asked what has kept her going despite the team's struggles through her early years, Thomas said, "I just really enjoy playing with my team. Also, I feel a responsibility to keep coming back and pitch for this team. I don't want them to go out there and struggle without a pitcher."
Laguna Beach concludes the regular season with a home game against Saddleback on Monday at Thurston Middle School. First pitch is scheduled for 3:15 p.m. If the Breakers win, they will finish the season with a .500 overall record at 11-11-1 and 4-6 in league.
"We kind of have seen this season as our time to prove ourselves in the league," Thomas said. "There are some teams that kind of match our skillset.
"Doing this well this season has been really important to us, and I think that we have mainly accomplished that. It would be nice to go to CIF, but I think that I am already proud of what we have done this season."
Born: March 2, 2001
Hometown: Laguna Beach
Height: 5 feet 4
Weight: 130 pounds
Coach: James Crawford
Favorite food: Chocolate
Favorite movie: "Paul Blart: Mall Cop"
Favorite athletic moment: At the age of 12, Thomas made the Aliso Viejo All-Stars. Her team traveled to Mira Mesa in San Diego. Thomas pitched all four games as the Aliso Viejo All-Stars won the tournament.
Week in review: The junior picked up a pair of wins in the pitching circle to help Laguna Beach to a sweep of Estancia in Orange Coast League play. The Eagles are the fourth-ranked team in Division 6.