Coach Stewart steps down

There has been a changing of the guard in world of the Laguna Beach High boys' volleyball program.

Lance Stewart, who served two different stints as varsity head coach, has stepped down from his position. Laguna Beach Athletic Director Mike Churchill said the school filled the vacancy this week by announcing Scott Panaro as Stewart's replacement.

Panaro, 29, has been a coach with Balboa Bay Volleyball Club since 2001. He's also served as an assistant coach to the Orange Coast College men's volleyball team since 2007 and last year was an assistant coach to the women's team at Vanguard University.

The Laguna Beach position is his second as a head coach at the high school level. He previously served as head coach at his alma mater, El Toro, in the 2005 and 2006 seasons.

Churchill said Panaro met his new team on Thursday.

"This is a phenomenal opportunity," Panaro said of the Laguna job. "Not many programs have the tradition, the athletes, that Laguna does. I feel it's one of the best programs in the country. I'm excited to be at the school."

Stewart said he stepped down as head coach to take on a "few new business opportunities," which included the recent purchase of Mavericks Volleyball Club in Corona. He said he still will run 900 sq. ft. Volleyball Club in Laguna Beach.

"It was a tough, emotional decision to step down," he said. "I love the kids. I have fun with them and enjoy the relationships we've developed. Being in the gym, running practices ... I'm going to miss that. And the parents, I've made a lot of great friends with our parents.

"But I came to the decision to leave. First, running one high-profile varsity program, in and of itself, is tremendous work. Coaching both the boys' and girls' programs put a lot of strain on my time. A lot of that went into my final decision. I missed a ton of my kids' baseball games and was away from my wife (Deanna) a lot, but she understands. I had some new opportunities in front of me that I needed to give my full attention to. If wouldn't be fair to the boys, if I stayed."

When asked if he would return as the head coach of the Laguna girls' varsity team in the fall of 2012, he had a quick response.

"Oh, yeah," he said.

Stewart, whose stellar volleyball career at Laguna Beach included winning a CIF Southern Section championship in 1981 during his senior year when he also was named CIF Player of the Year, first coached the Laguna boys' program between 1988-90. All three of those teams won league championships. He returned to again lead the program in 2004 through the 2011 season. Two years ago, his 2010 Breakers won the CIF-SS Division 2 championship and last year's team finished runner-up to the division title. He led eight of his 11 Laguna teams to a league championship and three other teams finished in second place.

Stewart's last three Laguna teams won State Southern California Regional Division III championships.

His overall record (best of three or five matches) with the boys' program is 211-90.

"I think the boys' team is going to be really good the next couple of years," he said. "Scott (Panaro) is familiar with some of these kids. He's got three, first-rate outside hitters, a starting middle, a starting center and a 6-foot-4 middle blocker, coming back. The cupboard is not bare. If this group works hard, it could be a very good team."

Panaro knows well of the caliber of players who hail from Laguna Beach: He said he's coached several of them at Balboa Bay Volleyball Club.

"What I've found in coaching the Laguna kids, is that they usually are very well-rounded players," he said. "They know the game.

"Volleyball is such a big part of the culture and community of Laguna Beach. The big thing that I want to address, is that I want to continue on their winning tradition. I admire what Lance (Stewart) has done with the program but I really want to make my own mark. My goal is to maintain what this program has had historically and what it has built up over the past few years."

Panaro graduated in 2000 from El Toro. He helped lead the Chargers to a league championship and during his senior year, played on the Balboa Bay Volleyball Club's 18-Under team that won a gold medal at the Junior Olympics. He played one year at the University of Hawaii then said he "retired" from his volleyball career, after his freshman year. He later attended OCC for two years and finished his undergraduate work (international studies) at UC Irvine. He said he is "almost complete" in his pursuit of a Master's Degree and a teaching credential.

"I was impressed with the people Scott has worked with and I'm looking forward to having a fresh start with the boys' program," Churchill said. "Since Lance decided not to coach this year, we were lucky to find someone so qualified as Scott to take over.

"It's really tough to follow a winner. We've been awfully successful with the boys' and girls' programs. Lance has been the 'figure' of volleyball at our school for so long. He made it a success and what it stands today."

Panaro said his first Laguna squad will open its 2012 season Feb. 28 with a nonleague game at Edison.

michael.sciacca@latimes.com

Twitter: @MikeSciacca

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