Though the San Dieguito Academy boys soccer program certainly wasn’t down — the 2015-16 squad reached the San Diego Section Division I playoffs and lost to the eventual section champion — new coach Keith Whitmer wants to take it to the next level.
The 2016-17 edition of the Mustangs has talent up and down the lineup, and Whitmer has brought a style that will take advantage of those players’ strengths, be fun for fans to watch and unify the program.
“When I came in, the biggest thing I wanted to do is shift the environment. I wanted all teams (varsity, JV and JV B) playing a similar style, running the same system and all training and looking the same,” Whitmer said earlier this week. “It’s just creating a very positive, encouraging environment, and having a program where the freshmen, sophomores, JV kids, when they step up, they will have an understanding that this is how we play, ‘The SDA Way.’ It’s a style of soccer that is attractive for fans and mimics the way soccer is going.”
The coach explained that ‘The SDA Way’ is attacking with good passing, movement and combination play.
“Everything is with a thought and a purpose,” he continued. “The kids are getting it and when it works, it can be very fun to watch and difficult to defend.”
The Mustangs opened the season with a 3-1 home loss to a good Del Norte team and then played Dec. 7 at Oceanside. Next up is a Dec. 9 contest at San Marcos.
These early-season matches are being played without standout senior Jonathan Sabouri, last year’s top scorer who has to miss the first five games of the campaign after getting invited to train with MLS franchise Sporting Kansas City’s Academy Team in front of USL (third-division) coaches.
Per CIF rules, he can’t play for SDA until he gets back.
But Sabouri’s absence doesn’t mean the Mustangs are devoid of talent, far from it. In fact, SDA has strong players at every position, from goalkeeper to defense to midfield and attack.
A pair of players are in competition to spend the majority of minutes between the pipes as juniors David Schlesinger and Nick Williams are both good enough to start at goalie.
“We have two really good (junior) goalies that bring two different dynamics,” Whitmer explained. “They are both good across the board, but each does things a little differently than the other. David has been with varsity (starting half of the season last year), and then Nick is tall and athletic.”
The defense in front of those two will be anchored by another dynamic duo in senior center backs Lucas Vilicich and Nick Engert, who provide skill and stability in that key spot on the field.
“They are both solid … you can count on them,” Sabouri told the Encinitas Advocate. “Lucas is really fast and strong, it’s hard to get by him, and then Nick is just really good with his feet.”
If the defense is the anchor for SDA, the Mustang midfield is the rudder, getting the team where it needs to go. There, a three-headed monster of seniors Ethan Boutelle and Arturo Diaz Vasquez, and junior Noah Bussell will be the stalwarts, with others filling in around them.
“The way we want to play, everything is going to funnel through the middle and we are going to be building through there,” Whitmer said. “(Other than those three) we’ve got a handful of other players (like senior Michael Lothringer, junior Eytan Camras and junior Jonah Aere) that can step in and provide some balance there.”
It’s no surprise that the Mustangs are strong all over the field, as 110 kids tried out for the less than 75 spots on the three teams in the program. And that depth is especially shown up front, where wingers and forwards such as Aidan Escobar, Chris Pickering, Aaron Luckhardt and Patrick Rahilly, all juniors, will pressure the goal.
Other SDA players expected to contribute this season are Drew Von Zweck, Max Abel, Luis Romero, Brandon Adams and Brian Gallagher, among others.
“With wingers and forwards, they are all very good players. I wouldn’t say we have any weak forwards, we all compete,” said Sabouri, who will join that potent offense when he returns to the team. “This year is more balanced (then last year), we have a lot of good players. We have a tougher schedule this year, but I think we will definitely be an improved team overall.
“Last year, I was the top scorer, but this year, I want to score but I also want to be assisting, especially to some of the juniors who will be on the team next year. I want to improve the team around me, and their confidence, compared to last year, is already a lot better. I’m kind of loud on the field so I want to keep doing that, just get the energy up.”
That tough schedule includes games against the likes of Torrey Pines, La Costa Canyon and a pair of matchups with rival Canyon Crest (Jan. 26 at SDA and the season finale at CCA).
“I want to win the Academy Cup against CCA, they beat us last year pretty bad at home,” Sabouri said. “I have friends on that team and I want to beat them. It’s going to be tough because I think they are going to be one of the top three teams in San Diego, I think they have four guys committed to Division I schools.”
Sabouri is himself committed to UC San Diego and Whitmer says the Tritons are getting a star.
“His speed, not just his first step but his first three steps, and his ability to maintain that speed, and his technical ability is really difficult to match up with,” the coach explained. “That’s going to be key for us … creating opportunities for everyone on this team. We have 23 other good players who can take advantage in those moments.”
And Whitmer has the experience to know what he’s talking about. From the South Bay (Manhattan, Hermosa, Redondo Beach) area, Whitmer hasn’t coached high school for about 15 years but has been on the sidelines for club and Olympic Development Program soccer that whole time. His wife, Jennifer, is from La Jolla so when he was offered a teaching job at SDA, the family (which includes his 8 year-old son and 6 year-old daughter) jumped at the chance.
The soccer coach spot opening up was just icing on the cake, but something Whitmer takes seriously.
“With a high school program, you realize it’s a bigger picture, not just throwing cones on the field,” he said.
And it doesn’t hurt to have the kind of talent he has on the Mustang squad.