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Grinds and grades: Meet the O.C. skateboarding league

In an area rich with strong academics and great sports tradition, it’s the least likely of pastimes that’s creating a cross-section between the two.

Skateboarding. Perilous, knee-scraping, artistic, imaginative skateboarding. Friday, the Orange County Skateboarding League, under umbrella organization the National Scholastic Skateboarding League, will kick off its fourth season.

In March 2010, the NSSL began with just four Orange County schools, all in Costa Mesa. Three years later, the NSSL has ballooned to nearly 30 schools across Orange County and San Diego, in cities like such as Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley, Irvine and San Clemente.

Now, as youth skaters flock to what began as an intramural project at Costa Mesa Middle School, the possibilities seem endless for the NSSL. With a gamut of professionals, from pro skaters to principals, lending their support to the skateboarding league, what is often dubbed a renegade sport is crossing over into the realm of responsibility.


Not a soul in the local skateboard scene can explain the birth of the Orange County Skateboarding League quite like Sam Swanson.

"She noticed I liked skating, and she made the whole league," Swanson, 14, said of his mother.

The league was founded by Newport-Mesa School District board member Katrina Foley in March 2010 at Costa Mesa Middle School, the school Sam attended at the time.

"Really, it just started as an intramural team at Costa Mesa Middle School for intramural skate contests with other middle schools," Foley said. "It's really just blown up since then because of all the people that wanted to be involved."

Foley's intentions were not to accommodate nearly 30 schools across Southern California, but essentially the league's growth was out of her hands.

"The kids started coming to us, and the parents started coming with them," she said. "So we told them, 'if you want to start a new team, you need to begin a skate club at your school.' We wanted there to be a connection to these schools."

Swanson, now a student and skate team member at Corona del Mar High, said the growth of the Orange County Skateboarding League is remarkable.

"I thought there would be about two schools, an occasional contest," he said. "But when it got this big, I just thought it was awesome."

Today, the league spans 29 public and private middle schools and high schools – including two high schools and two middle schools in Huntington Beach.

Foley compared the skate clubs to traditional school clubs, even though traditional school clubs might not be sponsored by Tilly's and Volcom.

However, she's quick to reiterate that academic achievement, school involvement and career preparation still serve as the basis for the league.

"We want them to understand that in today's society, you have to have a goal and you have to get good grades and be responsible if you want to get a good job within a good industry," Foley said.


Skateboarding and school go together just like chocolate and bacon.

You just need to give it a shot.

With the infusion of skate clubs at each school that has become a part of the Orange County Skateboarding League, what’s often labeled as a rebellious hobby is now being transformed into a privileged extracurricular activity – one that calls for many skaters to not only make their boards hit a 360, but also make their grades take a turn for the better.

Phil D’Agostino, formerly the principal at Estancia High, is in his third year as principal at Costa Mesa High, one of the Orange County Skateboarding League’s inaugural teams. And having lent his support to the league since its inception, D’Agostino has seen the effects the league has had on youths in the community who were struggling to create an identity.

“There has always been this counterculture element to skating,” he said. “There are surfing leagues throughout California and that same kind of rebel, renegade idea characterizes that sport. But this thing has been well-received by a lot of schools within the county.”

D’Agostino said that no matter how many opportunities schools provide for kids, some are still unable to be reached. Those kids, who feel disconnected from the school and the community, often consider dropping out.

But, if kids want to participate in the Orange County Skateboarding League, they are required to maintain a 2.0 grade point average.

“Most importantly, we’re getting a segment of kids who may feel otherwise isolated or disconnected and getting them connected and doing positive things in the community and getting good grades,” D’Agostino said. “That’s something that I will always get behind.”


While amateur skaters might comprise the league, help from the professionals is not out of their reach.

In fact, it's at their disposal.

"I think something like this is needed in every area, for the youth that want to express themselves on their own and not in a team sport," professional skater Tosh Townend said.

Huntington Beach native Townend has skated professionally for more than 15 years. In November, he put out his first Emerica pro-skating shoe and for a decade has endorsed boards to bear his name.

To top it all off, he's working weekly at the Orange County Skateboarding League as the first-year coach of the Huntington Beach High skate team.

"Even though they're on a team, skateboarding comes down to being solo and being artistic and making up your own tricks," said Townend.

Townend isn't the only skater in the area with ties to the pro ranks who acts as a role model. Costa Mesa's Dominick Walker, a two-time Orange County Skateboarding League individual league champion, is on the cusp of making his professional dreams a reality.

Walker says participating in the league taught him respect.

"It's sick because you get to meet a lot of kids," Walker said. "You get to step out of your element with all the different kids you meet. It's taught me a lot about respecting others."


Be careful when mentioning gender and skateboarding in the same sentence around Sarah Thompson.

You might get reprimanded.

"I have this answer stuck in my head," Thompson said. "I know this question. I know a lot of girls say, 'We can do it, too,' but it's not just that. We can go as far as the guys."

Thompson, a sophomore at Huntington Beach High, is one of nine girls who will compete in the Orange County Skateboarding League this season, the largest number of female participants in the league's short history.

And this isn't your regular batch of girls. These are feisty girls, starting with Costa Mesa High School freshman Paige La Bare, who dual-threats as a skateboarder and cheerleader.

"I don't see why I can't be both," La Bare said with a braces-clad smile. "When I'm here and I say I'm a cheerleader, people are shocked. The guys say, 'That's weird.' But when I'm at cheer and I say I'm going to go skate, people say, 'What?'"

Alexia Gonzalez, a seventh-grader at Corona del Mar Middle School, says there aren't enough girls riding boards.

"Just because people think it's a guys' sport doesn't mean that it is," Gonzalez said. "Girls can do anything that guys can. More girls should just try it."

Unlike many sports, girls and boys are not divided into separate divisions, as all competitions are simply organized by age.

While it's possible the customary taunt of "you got beat by a girl" will float in the air at a competition, according to Thompson, the competitive juices flow most abundantly between the female competitors.

"If you know girls, there is a lot of drama between them," Thompson said. "It's the same with girl skateboarders. We all know each other and a lot of us are friends, but it's competition, too. We're like 'frenemies.'"


Paige La Bare is a girl of many talents. She can out-smile you, out-skate you, and of course, out-cheer you.

In addition to being a cheerleader and soccer player, La Bare, a freshman at Costa Mesa High, is one of nine girls who will participate in the upcoming Orange County Skateboarding League season.

That’s the highest total the league has seen in its short history. And, not only are girls joining the league, they’re helping to expand it.

Kaiya Bertrand, a seventh-grader at Corona del Mar Middle School, started the skate club there.

“I think it’s for both boys and girls,” Bertrand said. “I think girls should be equal to guys and it’s better if girls do guy things, too.”

Bertrand’s partner in crime, Alexia Gonzalez, also in the seventh grade at Corona del Mar Middle School, takes a less subtle approach to the idea that skating is for boys.

“Just because people think it’s a guys sport doesn’t mean that it is,” Gonzalez said. “Girls can do anything that guys can. More girls should just try it.”

Unlike many sports, girls and boys are not divided into separate divisions, as all competitions are simply organized by age.

Elle Quinn, a sophomore at Corona del Mar High, said that although the sport often carries a male undertone, she’s always been one to break the mold.

“I’ve always liked to pursue my own thing,” Quinn said. “Even if mostly guys skateboard, that never stopped me.”

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