Where teams stand: Avocado West update for basketball and soccer

With one week (two games) to go in the prep basketball and soccer regular seasons, the winner of only one of the four major winter races in the Avocado League West has been officially determined—but the three others are virtually over. Despite the relative lack of drama, there will still be plenty of competitive juices flowing over the next seven days as teams jockey for not only league standing but positioning for the upcoming CIF Playoffs. Here’s a quick re-cap of what’s happened and what might be looming in boys’ and girls’ basketball and soccer.

Boys Basketball

Torrey Pines confirmed the boy’s hoops title with its win over Carlsbad Friday. Coach John Olive’s Torrey Pines team (24-2) has not only manhandled its Avocado West opposition, it is in position to snag the No. 1 or 2 seed in the upcoming CIF Open Division Playoffs. Last year’s CIF runner-up, is currently No. 2 behind Foothills Christian. Undefeated at 8-0 in league play and three games clear of the field, Torrey Pines has been led by the trio of senior point guard Finn Sullivan (18.1 ppg/8.4 rpg/5.5 apg) and junior twins Bryce (23.3 ppg/4.4 rpg) and Michael Pope (13.2 ppg/2.1 pg). Sullivan and (Bryce) Pope are both credible Avo West Player of the Year candidates, but the honor will likely go to Sullivan who at 6-foot-5 is a jack-of-all-trades in the backcourt for Olive.

The Falcons’ domination has been secured at both ends of the floor. They average 71.5 ppg in Avocado West action while holding foes to just 51.3, both league bests, and the 11-pt. gap in their first meeting with CCA is closest any of their five brethren has come to matching them. At second place Canyon Crest last Wednesday night, Feb. 7, Torrey gave a good demonstration of just how frustrating their talent, depth and reliability can be as they overwhelmed a very good Brian Baum-coached CCA team, 70-41. The Pope twins combined for 45 points and Sullivan netted 13 but even more notable was the way the Falcons stymied the Ravens’ offense. After leaving the floor up by 15 at halftime, the Falcons snuffed out any comeback notions by allowing just 14 points in the second half.

Torrey Pines
Torrey Pines senior Santiago Majewski Ken Grosse

Olive was excited to see his charges snag a sixth consecutive league title.

“One of our major goals every year is to win league,” said Olive, whose teams have now won 51 consecutive league contests and six league titles in a row. “It’s very difficult to play rivals home-and-home. We want to make sure we take care of business and finish things up Wednesday and Friday.” Besides winning, there’s still plenty of work for Olive’s Falcons to do this week.

“We want to fine tune our team for the playoffs and make sure we’re playing at our highest level when they start,” he said. “We’ll be working on little things like specialty situations and throwing in a few new wrinkles. People will adjust to us and we have to be ready to react to that.”

In its first season at the CIF Division I level, Canyon Crest, behind the inspired play of senior M.J. Metz, should be part of the D-1 playoff mix. The Ravens square off against La Costa Canyon Wednesday to break a second place tie. LCC has been somewhat of an enigma—a team that feels like it could be better but has not really been able to put things together on a consistent basis. Third-year coach Jason Stewart is hoping the tough Avo West schedule will have his improving San Dieguito squad ready to make an impact in the CIF D-III tournament.

Danny Najifian
Canyon Crest senior Danny Najifian Ken Grosse

Girls Basketball

Based on their run through the Avocado West this season, one gets the feeling that Coach Mario Flores and his La Costa Canyon girls’ basketball squad has not yet shown the level they are capable of reaching. The fifth-ranked Mavericks (20-5 overall) have breezed to an 8-0 league mark, beating opponents by an astounding margin of more than 30 points per outing. They’ve clinched at least a tie for a 10th consecutive conference title and can post a second straight perfect slate with two more victories.

“It’s always nice to win the league,” said Flores. “I like it for the kids, especially the senior class. Nobody wants to be the class that breaks that string but it’s not just about this team but for the entire program, including our past players and our community. That’s what it’s all about.”

With junior guard Alexis Machain, reigning Avo West Player of the Year, dialing back her scoring in favor of distributing, the Mavericks have five players averaging over seven points a game. Versatile Kaylee Berry seems ready to be at her best after missing multiple sections of the season with nagging injuries and fellow senior Colleen Haggerty is averaging just under 10 points per game and doing all the little things that have made her indispensable.

Flores looks for his team to fine tune its consistency over these final two games, playing four quarters of good basketball with good execution of its set offense.

Colleen Haggerty
La Costa Canyon senior Colleen Haggerty Ken Grosse

LCC’s command performance has given Flores the luxury of spreading liberal minutes up-and-down the roster, something that may pay dividends as CIF rolls around. “It’s going to help us tremendously,” says Flores. “We’ve stressed that the five kids starting can’t win it by themselves. Some of our younger, less experienced players like Hannah Etheridge and Katie Quain are really starting to build up confidence. All of our players need to understand that every role and every minute is important if we want to win a CIF championship.”

The other story of this campaign has been the steady improvement of Coach David McClurg’s cagers over at Torrey Pines. Following a sluggish 6-7 start in non-league play, the Falcons have won nine of their last 11, are 6-2 in Avocado West action and are the only team that has come within single digits of LCC (a 58-51 home loss in January).

“I think our players have just all come together and bought into the things we’ve been telling them all year,” says McClurg. “Playing hard defense and rebounding will keep us in games. It’s really been a combination of things but if we play as hard as we can on defense, I really don’t worry about what any of the teams we play are doing.”

Milly Kube
Carlsbad senior Molly Kube Ken Grosse

Senior dynamo Rachel Shen is producing at a 16.1-point/5.2-rebound per game clip and guard Maddie McClurg has been steady threat from the perimeter but the development of sophomore Beryl Dannis might be as important as anything to the Falcons’ resurgence. Averaging 5.7 points and a whopping 6.7 rebounds per game in minutes that have steadily climbed over the second half of the campaign, she’s become a new concern for TP foes.

“Beryl’s improvement has helped us a ton,” said McClurg. “She still has room to improve her fundamentals but when she does, we’ll really get a lot better.” Interestingly, Torrey Pines and La Costa Canyon will hook up in Carlsbad in Friday’s regular season finale.

First-year coach Donna Huhn’s young Carlsbad outfit has seemingly stabilized after a rough mid-season patch and could be a factor, along with Canyon Crest, in the CIF Division II Playoffs.

Boys Soccer

Possessing three of the top five boys’ soccer teams in the San Diego Section, the Avocado West has provided an entertaining four weeks to date and boasts a couple of high quality match-ups on tap for the final week. Coach Andy Hargreaves’ Torrey Pines side, sitting at No. 1 in the CIF’s power rankings at 18-0-3, is the presumptive Avo West kingpin. Sporting a 6-0-2 league mark and a loop high 23 goals, the Falcons are four points clear of second place Canyon Crest and know a win against sixth place Sage Creek Wednesday will sew up the trophy.

“We set out this season with three goals—win the league, win the CIF Championship and go as far as possible in the state tournament,” said Hargreaves. “We’ve got to hit the first one if we want to get all three.

“Honestly, I anticipated it being a lot closer and didn’t expected to be undefeated at this point of the season.” For Hargreaves, there’s no question as to the key pillar of the Falcons’ success—it’s the incredible depth across his roster.

“This is the deepest squad we’ve ever had,” marveled Hargreaves. “If one guy’s gone another steps in and the quality doesn’t go down.”

Although Torrey’s multi-faceted offense is top class, featuring names like Greyson Lerose, Michael Mines, Jose Salgaod, Denzel Sepeda and Tyler Weinrich, Hargreaves has been steadfast in giving his backline credit as the foundation of his team’s success.

Seniors Erik Herrera and Geffen Cooper have manned the two center back roles with a third senior, Santiago Majewski in the holding midfield position (sometimes sliding back to make it a three-man unit). Their size, skill and sense make them hard to break down. “They’re all good players but also tremendous kids who are real intelligent and make good decisions—on and off the field,” praised Hargreaves. “You never have to worry about them. They’re extremely driven.”

Canyon Crest (16-1-6/4-0-4), second in the power rankings and twice coming away with a draw against Torrey Pines, appears slated for the runner-up slot and No. 5 La Costa Canyon (11-5-5/3-3-2) figures to hold its bronze medal position. Both, however, are legitimate threats come CIF time. Coach Tom Lockhart’s charges at CCA have plenty of offensive firepower in the form of senior Danny Najifian (seven goals), Derek Brigado and Rish Jain but have quietly surrendered just six goals during the league season. The senior trio of Michael Avila, Sean Bridges and Connor Hunt, along with junior goalkeeper Brandon Kaleta have played major roles in the Ravens’ defensive proficiency. Coach Tom Lockhart’s team has also shown an opportunistic streak that can be important when it’s win-or-go-home time.

“We have a lot of experience in our lineup and that is huge,” said Lockhart. “I think we’ve finally gotten over the hump. In the past years, we’ve been good but didn’t have that mental fortitude you need in the big moments. We’ve had a tough schedule in both league and pre-season tournaments that has really prepared us.”

Over at La Costa Canyon, Coach Craig Dean & Co. should be given a medal for simply persevering. After winning their first two Avo West encounters, the Mavericks were stunned by crosstown rival San Dieguito. Next, while playing with a roster more than half a dozen players short, they relinquished a deflating late goal in a 3-2 defeat at Torrey Pines, were unable to cash in on numerous opportunities in a 2-0 home loss to CCA and finally, after scoring a late goal to seemingly end the damaging streak, saw last place Sage Creek procure a tie, converting directly on a corner kick in the game’s final seconds. Despite the hard times, when right, the offensive-minded Mavs, paced by seniors Jay Chong and Collin Wagstaff, have shown the talent and pedigree to be a threat to any opponent.

“I’ve never had a stretch like this, where we’re playing good soccer, dominating at times but just not putting goals away,” said Dean. “It’s a little discouraging and I’ve had to work at keeping our guys’ heads up.

“This final week, we finish with the top two teams in the league—Canyon Crest and Torrey Pines—and it’s important for our confidence and seeding going into CIF. I have full confidence in this team. If you don’t look at the goals, but the way they move, support each other, positioning—they’re doing almost everything right. They have to believe in how good they are. I know it’s there.”

SDA and Sage Creek, although occupying the lowest two places on the Avo West table could be threats in CIF play at the Division II and Division IV levels respectively.

Girls Soccer

Relying on small but swift band of forwards and an aggressive style of play up-and-down the pitch, Carlsbad, under first-year Head Coach Dean Balent, is poised to capture its first league crown since 2015. After battling perennial power Torrey Pines to a tie at home Friday night, the Lancers, now 14-4-2 overall and 5-1-2 in league, are four points up on the second place Falcons and have slipped past them to the No. 1 slot in the latest CIF power rankings. Their final two matches are against the bottom two teams on the table, San Dieguito and Sage Creek.

“I feel really good about where we are,” said Balent. “The returning players were really disappointed about finishing second in the league and being knocked out of the CIF Playoffs in the first round last season. Before this season, we sat down and mapped out a set of goals. The first two were to win the conference and get the highest seed possible for CIF Playoffs. To have them be on the verge of reaching those two is gratifying.”

Carlsbad has been able to overcome key injuries and since a 2-0 loss at Torrey Pines in late January has been the league’s most consistent group. Forwards Taylor Wells and Lexi Wright, a sophomore and freshman respectively, have the wheels and assertiveness to manufacture goals in rapid fashion if defenses slip up in the slightest. Gabi Enciso and Gabriella Howard provide the overlapping foot speed to make things doubly dangerous. Although the Lancers’ 22 goals scored in league play is easily to best figure among the six members, there has been far more behind their success. Thanks to players like senior midfielder Molly Kube, they’ve also yielded a league low eight tallies.

When league play began, the girls’ soccer crown, figured to be Torrey Pines’ to lose. The Falcons, defending Avocado West and CIF Open champions, were undefeated in pre-season play and ranked No. 1 in the section. They went 3-0-1, including the aforementioned defeat of Carlsbad, and seemed well on their way to a repeat performance. But following that victory, TP’s plans took a detour. Their next four outings included just one win, a loss to rival La Costa Canyon, an astonishing, 3-3, tie at Sage Creek and their second, 1-1, deadlock of the season with Canyon Crest. Then came last Friday night’s tie at Carlsbad and the Falcons are now outside looking in when it comes to the Avocado West championship.

Head Coach Martyn Hansford is, among other things, an unflappable realist with a long-range view. Although outsiders may have difficulty seeing a power like Torrey Pines ever having to deal with the roster issues an average team has, Hansford understands that his team’s relative inexperience was a least somewhat camouflaged by its excellent start.

“We had a lot of success early on but I just think it’s a long season, a lot of games and it’s hard to sustain that,” theorized Hansford. “I think there’s always going to be a dip in form at some point. There are a variety of factors—injuries, maybe a little drop in motivation, some complacency, burn out—that can cause that.

“Our players have been brilliant all year but don’t forget we replaced a lot of seniors from last year and lost four or five good goal scorers. That’s been our biggest challenge, to replace those goals. The end result, we’ve got what we earned.” The Falcons are far from destitute and will definitely be a major factor in post-season play. Hard-charging senior Chloe Gallo up front and multi-skilled sophomore Tatum Lenain in the midfield would stand out in anyone’s lineup. The latter is an instant threat every time she touches the ball on the opponent’s side of midfield.

The top two teams could chance of meeting a third time for all the marbles. “They’re No. 1, but if we’re 1-2 in CIF seeding, I’m happy,” said Hansford. “We beat them at our place and tied at theirs. I’ll take that.

“If we’re fortunate enough to be there and they’re fortunate enough to be there in the CIF final, that would be a heck of a final.”

Behind the top two clubs, there was also some quality on the rise. La Costa Canyon Coach Natalie Eckerlin has an extremely inexperienced outfit holding down third place heading into the final week. Hers is the only side that can claim a win over Torrey Pines. Counterpart Siggy Eyre over at San Dieguito has quietly got her team moving in the right direction and Sarah Aguilar’s Canyon Crest team may be the one to watch down the line. The Ravens’ defensive orientation was partly responsible for five ties in league play but they also suffered just one loss and drew with Torrey Pines twice. Dynamic freshman Ellie Ballard and fellow returnees Sophi Rodgers and Emily Gresser will form a talented core for next year’s team.

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