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Big year for young Santa Fe Christian surf team

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SFC senior Hayes Hemphill
(Steve Compos )

Although it covers more than just competitive outcomes, the slogan for Santa Fe Christian’s athletic department is “Be a Champion.” Based on its upward trajectory, the school’s youngest sport is doing just that.

Debuting on the varsity level in 2012, the SFC surfing team combined planning, coaching and, of course, talent to make 2018-19 the best season in its short history. The squad captured its first Scholastic Surf Series (SSS) championship, going undefeated through the dual meet season to finish ahead of 11 opponents and win the Division 5 title.

“This season was unreal,” said La Jolla native and former Cathedral Catholic surfer Owen Lysaught, the Eagles’ first-year head coach. “Our kids really wanted to see what they could do.

“They were open to listening and were really like sponges. There’s no better feeling than being able to help younger kids succeed at something through hard work.”

The school’s surf program was born out of the hopes of a small, club sub-culture in the student population that wanted its sport to be part of the mainstream athletic program and derive the type of support and recognition that would come with it. Under the leadership of then club head coach Jeremy Handysides (now the surf coach at Coronado High School), the dream became a reality.

Mariah Kettler
Junior Mariah Kettler of the SFC surf team. Steve Compos

In 2013, Matt Robinson was brought on board to coach the middle school surf team and in 2017 shifted into the newly-created position of surf coordinator. In that role, he oversees both the high school and middle school programs and is charged with facilitating the athletes’ transition from one stage to the next as well as administering and growing the sport on campus.

“Because we’re not a CIF sport, there are a lot more administrative tasks that fall on the shoulders of the coach,” said Robinson, another native San Diegan. “I take care of as much of that as possible, so that our coaching staff has the time to actually coach.”

Headed by Lysaught, who replaced his brother, Hunter, as the head coach, SFC has a formidable three-person staff. Kyle Lane, who served as head coach for two years, remains in the fold, a valuable asset as both a teacher and link to the program’s history. The newest addition, retired professional surfer Damien Hobgood, who spent more than 15 years on the Championship Tour, supplies an added dimension. His daughter is a seventh grader at SFC and a member of the middle school team.

“Having three coaches, particularly assistants like Kyle and Damien, was incredible,” Lysaught. “Kyle and I both participated in the SSS events in high school and bring a familiarity with the structure and environment surrounding high school surfing in San Diego. Damien’s background gives him instant credibility and his having relied on faith to overcome obstacles in his career resonates with our kids.

“The deep involvement that all three of us have has allowed for the development of great relationships with the team and fostering a ‘never give up’ mentality.”

The Eagles practice twice a week for an hour and a half, a morning prior to school and the other in the afternoon. One practice is simply a free surf where the team can go out and “do their thing” while being observed, filmed and later critiqued by the staff.

“Things like the video, which we break down and send to them with constructive feedback, helps them get to the next level,” said Lysaught. “We’ve also shared nutritional and dietary information, tips on stretching, visualization and breathing techniques.

“There are also times when one of us will just paddle out into the lineup and provide direct feedback.”

The second training stint revolves around mock heats, based on what they’ll encounter in actual competition. Six surfers are placed in 15-minute sessions, coaches doing the judging. During those 15 minutes, each surfer can catch up to 10 waves where only the two highest scores are counted.

“It allows our kids to get into a rhythm and develop a sort of sixth sense of the timing involved in a 15-minute heat,” explained Lysaught. “When they get to a contest, they feel comfortable as far as heat strategy.

“We also teach them to look at waves and conditions and understand how to best deal with them. We push them to try to get two decent scores right off the bat so they can wait for a big set—the reward is being able to capitalize.” The results have validated the coaching and training.

Not only did Santa Fe Christian bag its first team championship, senior Hayes Hemphill from Carlsbad was clearly the premier individual performer in Division 5, running away with both the season-long boys shortboard and longboard crowns. The 6-foot-1, 160-pounder, a self-described “laid back, light-footed” stylist, said this was the best year of the four he’s been on the team.

“This year was different, we had a bunch of good seniors and the coaching staff was really solid,” said Hemphill. “Damien Hobgood has so much experience from his years on the tour and helped me a lot with my form and technique.”

On the boys’ side, Michael Parsons (5th longboard), Rylan Goodwin (8th shortboard), Keegan Debever (5th body board) and Jack Wislar (8th body board) provided quality depth behind Hemphill in SSS outings and the excellence of junior Moriah Kettler, its lone female, helped SFC overcome not filling the two slots in the girls’ division. Kettler garnered second place overall in girls shortboard and third in longboard (surfing is a co-ed sport with combined scoring) while earning respect across the board.

“We call her ‘Miss Consistent,’ “ said Lysaught, alluding to the fact that she finished second in shortboard at four of the five events. “There are plenty of times in our mock heats where she was taking on the boys and she fit right in.”

Next season figures to offer a new test for the Eagles. Five of the nine members of the current roster are seniors, calling for at least some sort of rebuilding scenario. Add in the fact that the SSS utilizes a system where the top two teams in each division move up the following year while the bottom two drop down and the situation becomes that much more demanding. So, while being acknowledged for its achievements, Santa Fe Christian will be facing tougher competition with a much less experienced collection of surfers. While cognizant of the challenge, Lysaught and Robinson take the broader view.

“This was year one and this season was like a rough draft,” said Lysaught. “I know I’ve got a lot more to offer and I think our other coaches feel the same. There may be some bumpy patches moving up to Division 4 but I see us growing. What we’re doing has gotten the excitement and commitment levels going in an upward direction.” All part of the process.

Robinson says, “We have a championship culture at Santa Fe Christian, it’s a culture that’s competitive but also takes into account the uniqueness of the school. We try to stay present with the individuals on the team and not get ahead of ourselves.

“We’re still building that culture and right now our goal is to improve as surfers and coaches so that, hopefully, more kids will come out and more kids who are interested in surfing will see SFC as a viable option. We try to be authentic and I think kids like that.” Spoken like a true surfer.

Hemphill, who will be attending Santa Barbara City College next year and join the surf team there, knows his sport will always have its own special lure. When asked what he loves most about surfing, the answer was simple.

“Being in the ocean,” said Hemphill. “Out in the water, I forget about all the work in front of me. When I’m there, the only thing I focus on is surfing.”