It’s love of the sport first, competition second for Santa Margarita’s surfers

By GREG HARDESTY     5/26/2015

Kathryn Thomas always will remember her first high school surfing competition.

She showed up only to watch that day and wasn’t prepared to surf.

“But I loved the vibe that I got,” the 16-year-old sophomore at Santa Margarita Catholic High School recalled. “It looked so fun!”

Wearing street clothes, Thomas borrowed a wetsuit from her coach and a board from a friend.

She then put the wetsuit on over her clothes and paddled out with her good friend.

“We had a great time!” Thomas says.

And so it goes with members of Santa Margarita’s surf team.

Unlike CIF sports like football, baseball and basketball in which the competition level is fierce and winning plays a prominent role, the non-CIF sport of surfing is more of a club sport and not so much about competition, says Santa Margarita High School surf team coach Daniel Trotter.

The high school in Rancho Santa Margarita is one of two Trinity League schools — the other being JSerra Catholic High School, in San Juan Capistrano — that participates in the Scholastic Surf Series league.

The other three are St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, El Toro High School in Lake Forest, and Laguna Beach High School.

The Scholastic Surf Series league is a kinder and gentler version of the cream-of-the-crop National Scholastic Surf Association league, in which perennial Orange County powerhouses like Huntington Beach, San Clemente and Newport Harbor High School rule the waves.

For Scholastic Surf Series league members, whose season runs from October through the end of March, the vibe is more mellow. The SMCHS surf team has no formal practice schedule. Members show up a couple of hours before a league competition to paddle out and get a feel for the break. Teams compete head to head in the morning and individuals in the afternoon in contests that are staged at spots from Huntington Beach to Oceanside.

Trotter, an English teacher who grew up in Tustin and has been surfing most of his life, had to think for a second when asked how his Eagles surf team fared in the recently ended season.

“Third place,” the 42-year-old says. “No. 1 was Laguna Beach, followed by JSerra. I’m pretty sure fourth place was St. Margaret’s, and El Toro was fifth.”

Orange County, an epicenter of homegrown surfwear companies such as Hurley and Quiksilver, also has produced some surfers who’ve made it to the international pro surf circuit.

Currently, Kolohe Andino (San Clemente) and Brett Simpson (Huntington Beach) are on the world tour. Courtney Conlogue (Santa Ana) is on the women’s world tour and is currently ranked No. 2 in the world. Pat and Tanner Gudauskas (San Clemente) and Nate Yeomans (San Clemente) participate in the qualifying series. Time Reyes (Huntington Beach) and Luke Davis (San Clemente) also are trying to move up the ranks in the qualifying series.

Trotter doesn’t rule out one of his team members attaining similar heights in surfing, but he says that’s not what the Scholastic Surf Series league — or his team — is all about.

“The surf team is a way for our students who may not be into more traditional competitive sports to feel they’re part of the school community,” he says. “Our team is super inclusive. We encourage anyone who wants to be on the team to come out, and if they have a surfboard, we don’t turn anyone away.”

Most of the 21 students on SMCHS’s surf team — boys and girls, from freshmen to seniors — are beginning or intermediate wave riders. Trotter says he has a handful of promising sophomore surfers, which bodes well for the team in future Scholastic Surf Series meets.

Not that winning the league is what it’s all about, of course.

“I have been surfing for four years and wanted to join the team because I thought it would be fun to go to different beaches and compete,” says SMCHS sophomore Will Cox. He has been playing football and baseball his entire life but says “nothing compares to surfing.”

Adds Will: “The people on the surf team are cool and fun to be around, and it’s really fun being able to go out and surf with everyone. My favorite competition was when we went to the San Clemente Pier because the waves were fun and I got to use my new board.”

Thomas grew up around the beach and started surfing when she was 10.

“At that time, surfing to me counted as standing up on the board for more than a second,” she says with a laugh. “I joined the team because in the past years I have loved surfing, but I was unable to go out a lot because of pole vault. So I joined the team because I loved surfing and wanted to surf more and compete.”

Surfing is different from most sports, she says, “because it really is all about you. You are trying to get the best wave possible and do the most impressive things that you can while on it. Most other sports it is stealing the ball from someone else or trying to beat someone in a running race. I don’t try to focus on the competition, but just getting the best rides for myself.”

Sophomore Alexandra Barry joined the team because she thought it would be a great way to meet new people.

“Surfing at Santa Margarita is very student-based. It’s more fun focusing on the sport you love instead of what your coach or coaches want to see from you.”