The season ahead: Avocado West boys soccer preview

Sixth-year La Costa Canyon boys’ soccer coach Craig Dean could be speaking for just about any of his coaching brethren in the Avocado League West when he says, “It’s arguably the toughest league in San Diego. Year-in and year-out, the majority of the teams are playing at the very top level as reflected by last year’s CIF Playoff results.” The final 2016-17 standings looked like this…

Torrey Pines (7-3-0), Canyon Crest Academy (6-2-2), La Costa Canyon (6-2-2), Carlsbad (3-3-4), San Dieguito Academy (2-5-3), Sage Creek (0-9-1).

While agreeing with Dean’s assessment of the league’s strength, Torrey Pines’ Head Coach Andy Hargreaves thinks there could be a particularly special season ahead. “It goes in waves, but this year the Avocado League West is going to be incredibly competitive,” said Hargreaves, now in his 21st season at the Falcons’ helm. “Last year’s top four teams will all be very good, San Dieguito has a quality coach and we’re seeing a shift there and Sage Creek, although still new, will be a lot better.”

With the 2017-18 campaign kicking off in the coming week, here’s a quick overview of each of the six Avocado West teams.

Torrey Pines

Over the past 10 years, Torrey Pines has won three CIF championships and been a fixture near the top of boys’ soccer in San Diego. After capturing the Avocado West crown last season, there’s little to suggest that winning tradition will be derailed in 2017-18.

“We had a small group of seniors last year who were very disciplined and dedicated but we had a junior group that showed a lot and they should be able to step right in,” said Hargreaves, a native of Blackburn, England. “Our JV team went undefeated last year so we’ll be getting some support from there and overall, I’d say we’re a little deeper than a lot of schools.”

Reagan Sherlock, a versatile forward now at San Diego State, and midfielder Jordan Karam, on the roster at UC San Diego, are part of the missing core of which Hargreaves spoke but there’s plenty of talent to re-stock.

Senior captain Grayson Lerose will move his creative instincts from defense to the forward line where Hargreaves sees him as “an attacking force.” Another pair of seniors, Brian Bae, back from an academy stint, and Tyler Weinrich, should deliver additional scoring punch. Center defender Santiago Majewski spearheads a solid defense and senior Paul Bartlett mans the goal. Hargreaves is clearly confident about the caliber of roster he’s working with.

“We’ll be strong attacking and have an excellent back four,” said Hargreaves. “Actually, we’ve got six very good defenders so we’ll have a lot of versatility there. And when you have a senior goalkeeper, you always feel like you’ve started off well.” The veteran mentor also knows that ability isn’t always enough.

“We’ve got a lot of talented guys who are used to playing a lot so it’s important to keep the balance and chemistry right,” said Hargreaves. “That’s always a big factor and our captains will be key in helping create that part of it.”

Canyon Crest

Coming off a first-ever CIF Division I championship last fall, Coach Tom Lockhart’s Ravens look poised to make another strong post-season run in 2017-18. Despite losing what he calls “five special players” to graduation, Lockhart’s cupboard is hardly barren with nine seniors and 11 juniors lining the roster.

Prominent among the returners are senior center midfielders Cameron Crocamo and Sean Bridges. Crocamo has been on the CCA varsity squad since his freshman season and Bridges will come into the year with a special focus on duplicating last winter’s title. A major component of Canyon Crest’s early success a year ago, he missed the post-season after suffering an injury at the mid-point of the schedule.

Fast and dangerous in one-on-one situations, senior Daniel Najafian, the Ravens’ leading goal-scorer as a junior, will anchor things up top. After sitting behind a pair of seniors a year ago, there are high expectations for 6-2 sophomore Brandon Kaleta in the goalkeeper slot.

Lockhart hopes to see his squad play a style modeled after FC Barcelona, featuring quick passes and quickness off the ball. Even though he’s high on the talent at his disposal, the veteran head coach is cautious about making any pre-season predictions. “We’re smaller this year but also faster and deeper, so I’m very optimistic,” says Lockhart. “But, honestly, the favorite in this league could be any team. LCC and Torrey Pines are always going to be in that conversation, Carlsbad is tough and San Dieguito showed that it was capable last year.”

La Costa Canyon

Dean, whose Mavericks won the CIF Division I crown in 2015 and reached the semi-finals a year ago, seems to have the weapons to get that type of outcome once again. Although some big names, like team captain Cole Cardinale, who held together the league’s stingiest defense from his center back post, leading scorer Blake Miller and shifty center forward Robbie Schiefer, have departed, tears need not be shed just yet for Dean.

LCC is another possession-oriented, quick strike team. Senior center forward Jay Chong will provide a big, strong target in front of the goal. Back to boost the Mavs’ attack out of the midfield will be senior Brandon Lopez, potentially the team’s most skillful and creative player. He spent the last two seasons in a local academy program.

In the midfield, Dean will lean heavily on a pair of seniors. Second-year team captain Collin Wagstaff brings an extremely strong work ethic and great vision to the center midfield position while Evan Aguirre will be a physical presence in the defensive midfield as well as an able ball distributor.

Although the LCC defense surrendered a league low six goals in 10 Avocado West contests, their coach says he expects this year’s “D” to be better. “We had a lot of sophomores in starting positions,” said Dean. “They’ve got another year under their belts and they know what it takes to get where we want to go.” One of those current juniors is center defender Jake Aaknes who spent last year opposite Cardinale and brings a high soccer IQ to one of his team’s most critical positions.

One of the Mavs’ few question marks is between the posts where Dean must replace last year’s starting keeper, Ryan Shook. He has three viable candidates for the No. 1 spot and says, “each has strengths and weaknesses but none are where we need them to be quite yet.” One thing that is where Dean wants it is his team’s approach.

“They’ve been there, been close to reaching that ultimate goal and I could tell right away that the mentality was much different heading into training this season,” observed Dean. “The seniors know this is their last chance and they want to do something special.”

Carlsbad

Twenty-six-year Carlsbad head coaching veteran Jeff Riccitelli, whose 2014 squad won the CIF Open Division championship, saw his side reach the CIF Open Division quarterfinals last fall where it was eliminated in penalty kicks by eventual champion Canyon Crest. That was after the Mustangs had finished just fourth in the Avocado West race. He’ll be counting on an experienced defense to move his club up the ladder in 2017-18. Three returning senior starters — Marcos Lopez, Tyler Francis and Todd Predmore — anchor the back line with three-year starter Lopez manning the center back position.

“Marcos is very smart, reads the game well and just doesn’t make mistakes,” praised Riccitelli. “He’s got good speed and is comfortable with the ball at his feet. He’s so effective that sometimes you kind of forget he’s out there.” The defenders will be in front of another senior, Adrian Valencia, who will be stepping in as goalkeeper, filling the shoes of three-year starter and All-CIF predecessor, Seth Ketterer.

With two of his best offensive players, including last year’s leading scorer Angel Flores, opting out of this year’s season to play for soccer academies, the Lancers will have some question marks up front. “We’ve got to find goals,” said Riccitelli, who will be counting on some high potential youngsters coming up from the junior varsity squad. One of the x-factors offensively could be senior Sam Cohen who returns after a year in an academy program. As always, Riccitelli will keep his options open in terms of what his group will look like over the course of the season.

“We will try to play a possession game but it will really be dictated by who we play on a given day and how they’re playing us,” he said. “You go into the season with a plan but sometimes you have to change it, based on talent. Sometimes your opponent makes you change. We’ll be flexible.”

San Dieguito Academy

His team may have finished a distant fifth in last year’s Avocado West race but according to second-year San Dieguito Academy coach Keith Whitmer, it wouldn’t take all that much to put his Mustangs back in the thick of a title chase this season. “We were in just about every game, right there,” said Whitmer looking back on campaign that concluded with a last minute CIF Quarterfinal loss to highly-regarded league rival La Costa Canyon. “We just couldn’t finish them out. If we can find a way to do that and change the results of those close games, it will look a lot different at the end of the season.”

Getting a different outcome will need to start with getting more production on the offensive end, a task made more difficult by the graduation of Jonathan Sabouri who Whitmer feels might have been the league’s best player. Sabouri matriculated to UC San Diego (where he scored six goals in his first season) but Whitmer sees a silver lining in his departure. “Everything went through Jonathan but we became very predictable,” said Whitmer. “We should be less so this season.”

Seniors Patrick Rahilly and Chris Pickering figure to be the go-to guys at forward and another pair of fourth-year players, Noah Bussell and Jacob Bland will be key in a midfield that Whitmer believes could be the strength of this year’s squad. “Noah’s been on the varsity since his freshman season and we’ll have so many talented players at those positions—both in the starting lineup and off the bench,” said Whitmer. “We’re going to have a lot of options.”

The defense will be a bit more of a concern as the Mustangs will be sending out a brand new group. Among those SDA will be counting on are seniors Brian Gallagher on the left side and Jonah Aera on the right. “We’ll be giving guys a great opportunity to show what they can do,” offered Whitmer. “I think we’ve got some solid talent but they haven’t played together. Developing the necessary consistency is a process and we’re going to have to get there fast.”

As for style, Whitmer smiled and said, “ask me after we play Del Norte (SDA’s first pre-season opponent).” Ideally, the Mustangs will look to be creative — passing and moving. “We want to get forward as quickly as possible whether it’s through the midfield or more directly — regardless the method, we want to get at teams in a hurry.”

Sage Creek

First-year Sage Creek head coach Neal Keith faces a daunting task as he takes the helm of a young program, still looking to find its footing in the treacherous Avocado West landscape. The Bobcats, given the circumstance of being just four years into their existence, were a respectable 3-4-2 in non-league action but went winless while scoring just six goals and allowing 34 in 2016-17 Avocado West contests.

Keith, most recently the head coach of the L.A. Galaxy Academy team while doubling as an assistant at Carlsbad, is looking, above all else, to bring constancy to his fledgling outfit. “This team has had a new coach every year which is hard enough but particularly when going against the kind of teams we face in this league,” said Keith. “I’m looking to bring more stability and get us to a point where we’re competing on a regular basis. We have five senior starters returning, which is a first, and will have full freshman and JV teams so there are a lot of positives.”

Senior forward Daniel Moran, a native of Spain and the Bobcats’ top scorer as a junior, brings speed and technical prowess on the offensive end. Junior Titus Washington will provide additional firepower as an attacking winger. Senior Kevin Cook gives Keith a strong presence in the middle of the park.

Although his preference is playing a possession game, the new coach will try to keep opponents guessing by changing up his team’s look and getting creative with formations. He’ll also prioritize the mental part of the game. “I don’t see it being a problem with this group, but this is a process and we need to make sure we don’t fall into the routine of previous years,” said Keith. “If we lose one game, it can’t affect what we do going forward. It’s a long season.”

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