It has been a magical ride, thus far, for the Laguna Beach High baseball team.
The Breakers have feasted on unfounded success in 2011 by setting — at 19 games, and counting — the school record for wins in a single-season in the 73rd year of the program's history. They've worked hard to enjoy their just desserts, that hard work starting back in September in the weight room. Their diligence and attention to detail, combined with a focused, experienced team, has helped the squad continue on a course that could end a famine of futility on the diamond that dates back decades.
The program hasn't won a league championship since taking the Orange League title 1963. Just two other times, 1954 and 1957, has the program won a title. The current Breakers, however, are solidly on course to get that first league ring in 48 years: They hold down first place in the Orange Coast League by four games, with six to play.
Coach Jeff Sears says the player who "sets the table" this year is Keaton Jones. The senior pitcher and middle infielder — he plays shortstop and second base — has come into his own in his third year on varsity.
"He's the poster child of a player who works extremely hard to be the best he can be," Sears said. "He works that way in the weight room, the classroom and on the field. I tell him that to his face, in fact. He's really matured into himself and into his abilities.
"He comes to play every day. We break from our team huddle to the chant, 'All in,' and Keaton's 'all-in' every day. He's a team guy and he helps bring everyone together. He has a tremendous arm and has developed tremendous foot work through his work ethic. He gets around ground balls that kids at the high school level don't usually get to. He's the 'real deal'."
In 21 games, Jones has a .408 batting average in 71 at-bats. He has a team-high 11 doubles, a team-high in walks (14), team-high in stolen bases (nine), team-high for runs scored (27), is tied for most triples (two) and has 16 RBIs. On the mound, he picked up his third win of the season with a relief victory Tuesday over Calvary Chapel. He's 3-0 with an 0.81 ERA and also has a team-best five saves on the year.
Last year, he was first-team all-league.
"Over the years, I've gotten bigger and stronger, and that's helped me with my offense," Jones said. "Our workouts have helped me become more confident as a player and I'm trusting my abilities. In regards to our work ethic, we have worked really hard since the beginning of the school year. Coach Beckman (Erik Beckman, the team's strength and conditioning coach) put us on a five-days-a-week program during the fall and we still have weekly weight workouts. I want to thank him for that because I think we're better athletes for it. That hard work in the weight room has paid off."
Jones is Laguna's lead-off hitter, a spot that he relishes and one that Sears said has definitely set the tone this year for the Breakers' offense.
"He just finds a way to get things done at the plate," Sears said. "Keaton's on base average is about .450 (as of Friday it's .523). He always finds a way to get to second base.
"The engine revs around him. He's a big lead-in for Austin Paxson, our No. 2 hitter who is probably our best action guy and he's a great table-setter for the likes of Chris Paul and Eric Peruzzi. We have great team camaraderie and Keaton is definitely a big, big part of our success."
Jones has played on the last three Laguna teams that own three of the top 10 all-time records for single-season victories. As a sophomore, Laguna won 14 games in Sear's second year as head coach. Last year, the Breakers set the new standard for season wins at 16.
This year, Jones said, is different.
"I think a big thing with what we've done has to do with our leadership," he said. "When I was a sophomore, we had really good leadership from that year's senior class. Last year, that leadership wasn't there as much. This year, we have a pretty big senior class on the team and know what Coach's program is about, and we trust him.
"Our confidence has definitely grown this year as the season has progressed and we have been winning. But we've never talked about any of that. We expect to win because we know we're prepared and capable of winning. That's something we've grown into. When we go out on the field, we want to win the inning first, and then the game."
Jones' play this year has allowed the senior to creep into the consciousness of the college baseball recruiting world. He said he's been pursued by Portland and Oregon St. and was a late-recruit with Texas Christian University. He said he has been accepted to and has committed to TCU. He said he won't be heading to the Forth Worth school on scholarship but has been given a "guaranteed roster spot" and will pitch and play infield.
With just six weeks left in the 2011 season, Jones says the Breakers, ranked fourth in Division 4, are hungry for more. A league title is well within reach. With it, would come a rarity: hosting a first-round CIF playoff game. They also want to play into the first weekend of June, the weekend where the CIF playoffs conclude with division championship games.
"We want it bad," he said. "We've never been in this position before. This team is special. We really have all grown up together, played Little League against each other, and now play together on the same team. It's a great group of guys and I can hang out with any of them.
"We have fun and I think that's one of the reasons we are doing so well. We trust and support each other and we all have been working toward the same goals. We've had a great season so far but there's still a lot more we want to accomplish."