When it comes to local high school sports, what may already be best is going to get better. As a result of the North County Conference’s (NCC) recent biennial league alignment review, San Marcos High School and Mission Hills High School, both growing forces in the San Diego prep athletic universe, will be switching from the Avocado League East to the Avocado League West. The change will be implemented for the 2018-19 school year.
They will now be paired with Torrey Pines, La Costa Canyon, Canyon Crest Academy and Carlsbad to form what, at least on paper, looks like the premier high school league in the San Diego Section. As part of the re-structuring, San Dieguito Academy and Sage Creek will transfer from the Avocado League West to East.
In a process that’s been in place for as long as all current participants can recall, every two years the NCC, an association comprised of member schools from four North County leagues—Avocado West, Avocado East, Palomar and Valley—convenes a committee to assess the state of league membership. Criteria such as competitive equity, enrollment, geography, travel and tradition are examined.
The present-day committee, consisting of one administrator and one athletic director from each of the conferences, met for the first time in March of 2017. Former Valley Center principal Ron McCowan (recently appointed as Superintendent of Schools for the Pauma Unified School District) served as chairperson of the group. Avocado West delegates were La Costa Canyon Principal Bryan Marcus and Torrey Pines Athletic Director Charlenne Falcis-Stevens. San Dieguito Academy Athletic Director Scott Jordon was included in the group, participating on behalf of non-football playing members.
After listening to needs, concerns and ideas from around the room and then weighing the various factors, the representatives develop a proposal or set of proposals that are forwarded to the athletic directors at the 23 NCC schools. Following the vetting of the proposals on their individual campuses, opinions and suggestions are returned to the committee which ultimately creates a final proposal that is submitted to the NCC principals for approval. It can go back-and-forth several times.
This time around, an option recommending Avo East schools Vista and Rancho Buena Vista shift to the Avocado West was initially advanced for consideration. The response from the institutions, through their athletic directors, was “why not San Marcos and Mission Hills instead of Vista and RBV?” Going back to the table and studying the two alternatives side-by-side (using top-to-bottom CIF power rankings in each league for comparison), competitive equity and district alliance were keys to a decision promoting the San Marcos-Mission Hills route. The endorsement of the principals came last fall. Although the course can sometimes be circuitous, the chosen outcomes tend to get it right.
“North County is truly blessed to have principals and athletic directors that look out for what is best for all of our student-athletes and many times have to put aside what might be in the best interest of their individual schools in order to build equitable leagues,” said McCowan. “I will admit that this is not always easy and sometimes the room can get a little bit heated.
“It is not a quick process and I do not think it should be. As the discussion moves along and we look at the data, the group comes together to develop a result that best serves North County high school athletics. In my opinion the experience on the committee was very rewarding.”
Jordon may have described it best. “We’re just trying to get to the best idea,” said the SDA AD. “There are definitely some people who don’t like the final result but they understand that not everyone is ever going to be totally happy.”
So, what exactly will Avocado West fans be getting next year? In San Marcos, the league will be adding the San Diego Section’s largest school in terms of enrollment (3,234) and Athletic Director Jeff Meyer’s program is reflective of that standing. Already in 2017-18, the Knights have captured five Avocado East titles, won CIF championships in girls’ volleyball (D-II) and boys’ wrestling (D-I) and reached the semi-finals in football (Open) and field hockey (D-1). As of press time this winter, San Marcos boys’ and girls’ basketball and soccer teams are all ranked in the top 10 countywide.
Despite having been post-season participants in virtually every sport, Meyer, an admitted advocate of “different leagues for different sports,” is coming into the Avocado West without delusions of grandeur.“We have sports that play in Division I-II and III,” he said. “I believe we will fit fine in the new league in certain sports, but in others will struggle to win a single game.”
Mission Hills, whose attendance is in the 2,500 range, also brings sterling competitive credentials. For starters, the Grizzlies have reached the final four of football’s Open Division each of the last three seasons while the girls’ basketball team has captured three consecutive CIF Open Division crowns and is ranked No. 3 with this year’s playoffs approaching. Last fall, Mission Hills won the D-II field hockey title and reached the championship final in girls’ tennis. Veteran coach and administrator Ken Putnam is the Athletic Director.
Anticipation would be a good way to describe the reaction from the existing Avocado West members. “It’s going to be fun and I think it’s fantastic,” said Falcis-Stevens, whose Torrey Pines program is the dominant overall program in the Avo West now. “I think it will bring more competition across-the-board and bring about more competitive balance.”
LCC athletic director Kari DiGiulio was just as emphatic.
“The fact that San Marcos and Mission Hills are joining our league is all positive—they’re both high quality programs that can only make us better,” says DiGiulio. “The Avocado West is going to be a powerhouse—without a doubt, the top league in the section. I like that.”
Oceanside and El Camino, currently members in football only, will remain in that capacity. Last fall, at one point, all seven Avo West grid teams were ranked in the Division I top 10. With Mission Hills and San Marcos in the mix (both were top four CIF Open Division clubs in 2017), Friday nights could be pretty special on the North Coast. “There are not going to be any gimme games,” smiled DiGiulio. “Every week it’s going to be a battle.”
Although some of the current Avo West coaches recognize that the newcomers could not only make league titles but the road to the CIF Playoffs more difficult, comments from Mario Flores, coach of the 10-time defending Avo West champion LCC girls’ basketball squad, seem fairly reflective of that group’s attitude.
“As just a coach, I look at this as a great challenge—in my sport those two programs are as good as any in the section,” said Flores, whose club, in addition to San Marcos and Mission Hills, will be part of the eight-team open bracket in the upcoming CIF Playoffs. “But, I’ve already talked about it with my team and we’re ready to go after it. You always want to test yourself against the best.”
NORTH COUNTY ALL-SPORT LEAGUE ALIGNMENT FOR 2018-19 (not including football)
Canyon Crest Academy
La Costa Canyon
Rancho Buena Vista
San Diegutio Academy