The San Dieguito Academy boys basketball team isn’t the biggest in the district, nor the fastest or even the most athletic. But when fans and community members look on the court, they will see a team in the truest sense of the word.
And that’s something that gives third-year coach Jason Stewart and his players a lot of pride.
“We are a team, in a very real way, and I think that’s reflective of our community,” Stewart said of the Mustangs, who started the season by going 1-4 against some talented L.A.-area teams at the Tipoff Classic in Irvine and open their home schedule Dec. 16 by hosting Tri-City Christian at 7 p.m.
“I’ve lived in Encinitas for 10 years now and what I’ve found out is this is very much a community, everyone’s talking to each other, everyone knows each other and everyone does things together. Our team is a lot like that and that allows us to do more than we could as individuals.”
But that doesn’t mean Stewart’s team is lacking talent. And after playing as a backup guard on the 1997 NCAA Champion Arizona squad that included stars like Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, Miles Simon and Michael Dickerson, Stewart knows talent when he sees it.
SDA has five experienced seniors that team with an explosive sophomore class to form the foundation of the 2016-17 Mustangs, who play at the Division-III level.
That 12th-grade quintet includes Seth Frankel, Andrew Naimark and Devin Gaan, and is highlighted by Lucas Oldham, a versatile player at 6-foot-3, and 5-7 guard Daniel Chagnon.
“We have five seniors this year and they are all contributors,” Stewart explained. “Luke is really doing well for us, he’s off to a pretty good start and is getting some looks from a couple of D-III (college programs). I ask guys to be able to play multiple positions and Luke is able to do that. He is pretty active all over the floor.”
Chagnon meanwhile, is one of the smaller players in the league but has one of the biggest hearts. More than just hustle and intellect, however, Chagnon has led the Mustangs in scoring on a few occasions.
Oldham says SDA’s players have become closer than ever thanks to bonding exercises — such as a rock climbing event at UC San Diego and post-practice games of Catch Phrase — and that has paid off on the court.
“Everyone is just working well together and knows what everyone else is going to do,” Oldham continued. “We work best when we all have that team mindset as opposed to individuals going out there and getting their stats. We’ll win games when everyone is focused on the team.”
That was shown in the Mustangs’ first few outings, most notably a 70-44 beatdown of Animo South Los Angeles, a Division II squad, in the Nov. 28 opener. In its most recent game, SDA nearly knocked off San Juan Hills before dropping a 62-57 contest.
Though some of them are battling injury in the early going, the Mustangs will rely on a quartet of sensational sophomores as the season progresses. That group includes 6-foot-4 big men Travis Snider and Baylor Brimmer, and twin guards Ron and Yarin Arbib.
“We’ve got some younger guys who are critical to our success,” Stewart said. “Travis Snider is a four-man who is very well versed with his footwork, which is surprising for such a young age. Ron and Yarin are dynamic in their ability to execute what I want them to execute. Yarin is more of a point guard and Ron is more of a shooting guard and they both know how to find the basket.”
That goes especially for Ron Arbib, who played on varsity as a freshman last season and poured in 30 points during a game against San Marcos.
Other players expected to contribute for SDA this winter include defensive stalwarts Matt Turcotte, a 6-3 junior, and 6-5 junior Zach Fuller.
“Matt Turcotte is really evolving and helping us out tremendously on defense. He has long limbs so that helps him get out in the passing lanes,” Stewart said. “Zach Fuller is coming along and does a really good job protecting the paint. He has some long arms that affect shots, and that really helps our defense.”
The Mustangs, who go 10 or 11 players deep, will need all of those guys playing well when they get into their Avocado West League schedule. Opponents like Torrey Pines (a playoff team in the CIF San Diego Open Division last year), La Costa Canyon (D-I playoffs), Canyon Crest and even Carlsbad and Sage Creek will challenge SDA, which moved from playing in the Avocado East last season.
“I spent my first two years getting used to the Avocado East and all of the coaches in there and what they like to do, and going into my third year, when I finally get some traction with my own team, then we get moved to Avocado West … a very tough league. It all stacks up for a great adventure,” Stewart said. “There’s no question that Avocado West is difficult, but Avocado East was difficult as well.
“Entering my third year, I think we are taking steps further as a program. If you check back at the end of the year, my hope is that we’ve done better than we did last year. And I’m a competitor, so playoffs are always in the picture.
“If you look at my resume … I won a national championship at Arizona, so I want to win. But at the same time I understand that when you are building a program, it is a test of character to understand that it is a marathon, it’s all about getting to that next milestone.”
After the Dec. 16 home opener against Tri-City Christian, the Mustangs will play in the Sweetwater Lions Club Classic in National City Dec. 17-20.