Sean Nolan spent about half his summer not far from the beach, but about as far as possible from any football field in Orange County.
The Laguna Beach High senior spent time traveling with the Eagle Impact Rugby Academy, and he said that included a month-long trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to train at a rugby all-star academy. After the training concluded, Nolan went south to Waterford, Ireland, for a couple of weeks with family. Nolan grew up in Waterford before moving to Orange County when he was 10.
Nolan is a top returning receiver, cornerback and punter for the Breakers football team, but his first love is rugby.
“Not afraid of the contact,” Nolan said, adding that he’s been playing rugby since he was 4 years old. “The pads are just a little different.”
Third-year coach John Shanahan did not mind Nolan, last year’s Orange Coast League Special Teams MVP, spending time away from football over the summer.
“I loved it,” Shanahan said. “I knew he was working hard. They were grinding him over there, and he was getting bigger, stronger and faster. You could see it.”
Shanahan can only hope the same for the rest of his players. The Breakers, who open the season with a home game Friday night at 7 against Glendale Hoover, are young this year. Shanahan lost key players to graduation, guys like Orange Coast League Offensive MVP Adam Armstrong, a receiver, and league Co-Lineman of the Year Zach Fields.
The Breakers, who finished second in the Orange Coast League in each of Shanahan’s first two seasons, made a move to the new Pac 4 League with the Orange Coast League champion, Godinez, as well as Western and Ocean View. Western is ranked No. 2 in this week’s CIF Southern Section Division 11 poll, with Ocean View at No. 9.
Laguna Beach is unranked in Division 12. Shanahan knows his team has work to do to make it back to the postseason.
“We’re the smallest [public high school] in Orange County [with 1,021 students],” Shanahan said. “I don’t know why we’re in a league with Western [with 1,800 students]. That’s strange. Teams like Estancia, Costa Mesa and us all kind of belong in a similar league. I feel like we have a more difficult league this year.
“Western and Ocean View, it’s going to be difficult to win those games. Those are really good teams. We’re going to be dramatic underdogs in those games, but if we can find a way to win one of those games, we’ve got a chance to be playing Godinez on that last night of the season to get into the playoffs. That’s always our goal here — get in the playoffs.”
Andrew Johnson, a junior, takes over as the starting quarterback for two-year starter Curtis Harrison, who graduated. Shanahan said Johnson was the Breakers’ frosh-soph quarterback last year. He has more varsity experience in tennis, where he helped Laguna Beach win the CIF Southern Section Division 4 title as a singles player last spring.
“He’s really smart, makes the right reads, but he’s very young and green,” Shanahan said. “There’s going to be some growing pains, for sure.”
Johnson does have a top receiver in Nolan, who had 55 receptions for 823 yards and nine touchdowns last year. Kai Ball also returns at receiver. Running back Shane Lythgoe, a first-team all-league pick who rushed for 508 yards and two touchdowns in 2017, also is back.
The offensive line returns two starters in junior left tackle Drew Fink and senior Brendan Schmanski, who shifts from center to right tackle.
Shanahan said that senior end Caleb Molstajo is one of four returners on defense, a list that also includes Lythgoe at linebacker, Nolan at cornerback and junior Curran Hendricksen at safety.
“We’re young and inconsistent, but we do have some good skill,” Shanahan said. “We’ve got to grow very quickly up front. We want to stop the run on defense and just try to get first downs on offense. We’re so young, we’ve just got to take care of the ball and make sure we don’t put our defense in tough positions early on in the season.”
Shanahan trusts his players. Laguna Beach started 1-4 last year but rallied to make the postseason with four straight league wins.
Lythgoe said he and his teammates are indeed working hard, young team or not.
“I think we have a lot of young players who are going to have to step up,” Lythgoe said. “It’s going be a shock playing on varsity, but I feel like once they warm up to it all, we’ll be good.
“[We have a] junior quarterback, [and a] mainly junior [offensive] line, which is completely different. I ran behind a fully senior line last year. We just have to make sure the younger guys get used to it all.”
Laguna Beach Breakers
CIF Southern Section Division: 12
Coach: John Shanahan (third year)
Staff: Darren Crawford (defensive coordinator), Nate Ball (wide receivers), Tarquin Stephenson (offensive line), Alex Hutcheson (running backs), Joey Luna (defensive line), Taro Doone (linebackers), Hunter Braun (safeties), Ryan Koh (cornerbacks), James Crawford (offensive line/defensive line), Dan Moriarty (defensive line), Rob Engstrom (quarterbacks)
2017 season: 5-6 overall, 4-1 in the Orange Coast League (second place), lost 24-17 to Temecula Rancho Christian in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Division 12 playoffs
Offensive scheme: Spread
Defensive scheme: 4-3
Returning offensive starters: Five
Returning defensive starters: Four
Returning with honors: Sr. WR/CB Sean Nolan; Sr. RB/OLB Shane Lythgoe; Sr. WR/CB Kai Ball
24 — vs. Glendale Hoover
31 — vs. Big Bear
7 — vs. Dana Hills
14 — vs. Bellflower
21 — at Estancia
28 — vs. Marina at Westminster High
5 — vs. Arcadia Rio Hondo Prep
12 — at Western*
19 — vs. Ocean View*
25 — vs. Godinez* at Santa Ana Valley High
*denotes league game