Encinitas Advocate Sports

The season ahead: Avocado West boys basketball preview

Avocado League West boys’ basketball competition fires up this week and for the two local squads — La Costa Canyon and San Dieguito Academy — it means aiming at the same target but coming at it from two different perspectives. LCC, which has won more than 400 games, four CIF championships and a stack of league titles in 18 years under Head Coach Dave Cassaw is looking to add to an already formidable legacy.

Five miles southwest, enthusiastic, aggressive third-year Head Coach Jason Stewart wants some of what La Costa Canyon’s got for his developing San Dieguito program. The Mustangs, a CIF Division III team, have shown steady growth under Stewart’s guidance and will be looking to take the next step at the league level.

Take those two, throw in defending champion Torrey Pines, the county’s No. 2 team according to the latest rankings, a talented, senior-laden Canyon Crest team, always competitive Carlsbad and fast-improving Sage Creek and you’ve got the recipe for an entertaining and perhaps unpredictable season ahead. Here’s an update on the two area teams as well as a brief conference overview.

La Costa Canyon

Cassaw’s club will be trying to shake what, for them, qualifies as a title drought. The Mavericks were one of the eight teams chosen for last year’s CIF Open Division bracket but for the second consecutive year they were third in the conference standings. Uncharacteristically, the Mavs come out of non-league play with a sub-.500 record but it’s not something that has the veteran Cassaw overly concerned.

“I told our team that we were purposely taking on a tougher early schedule because our goal is to be good late,” said Cassaw. “Our record hasn’t been what it typically might be but the schedule and some untimely injuries and illnesses have played a part in that.

“We also haven’t played to our potential in some games and hopefully the lessons we’ve learned against some good teams will pay off.”

The Mavericks certainly seem to possess the kind of top end talent and depth capable of giving anyone trouble when hitting on all cylinders. Six-four junior guard Graham Cook, a third-year starter has emerged as a vocal leader and will create match-up problems on most nights. “Graham is a pretty versatile player who is competent directing the offense, scoring and setting up teammates.”

In LCC’s guard-oriented, motion offense, Cook’s running mates include seniors Jackson Curtis and Chandler Daugherty as well as junior Taro Boyd. Curtis, a first-year starter shares ballhandling chores with Cook and has become a good perimeter defender. Daugherty, who according to Cassaw “does whatever we need,” had a break out game offensively in January, torching Orange Glen for 29 points in an 81-73 Maverick victory. Boyd is another who can provide instant offense whether shooting a three or attacking the rim.

The post has been manned by a changing cast but Charlie Schmitz, a 6-4 sophomore, seems to have found a home in the starting lineup lately. Some reinforcement in the depth department is also on the way in the form of JaQuan Carroll. The dynamic 5-9 guard, who broke his foot during football season, has two years of varsity know-how and is expected to be active for league play.

“Our strength is that we have a group of guys who are really committed to playing together and playing the game the right way,” said Cassaw. “This year’s team has been a little different in that we didn’t have quite as much seasoning coming in as we’ve had in the past. I’m excited about the way we’re continuing to gel and excited to see how good they can be.

“That said, we need to improve. I’d like to see us maintain a high level of focus for 32 minutes. We’ve had some lapses over a matter of a few minutes in some of our losses and that’s when the games have changed. Experience in big games and those types of moments will help us.”

San Dieguito

Founded in 1936, San Dieguito is the oldest school in the district but is still in the process of rebuilding its athletic foundations after a period of de-emphasis when it moved to the “academy” format (1996). Stewart likes where the culture of his school and program are headed.

“From the top, San Dieguito is putting forward a message that ‘we want our academics to be top notch but we don’t want to sacrifice athletics,’ ” said Stewart, whose hoops pedigree includes membership on Lute Olson’s 1997 NCAA Championship team at Arizona. “We want to be competitive in athletics and I can see us eventually going to Division I and competing on a regular basis with the best schools in the section.”

While that may not happen this season, the confident Stewart wants his charges looking at the big picture, to be ready when the opportunities—like the upcoming Avocado West season—present themselves.

To that end, like Cassaw, Stewart prepped his group with a challenging pre-season slate, including a trip to a tournament in the Los Angeles area. He likes the results. “I’m happy where we are,” said Stewart when asked to evaluate the season to-date. “We’ve had a lot of tough battles. Some of the schools we played up in L.A. really tested us and to come back with a winning record was positive. We’re still getting better.”

The Mustangs’ roster is centered around an eight-man junior class, four who are starters. SDA has just two seniors. One is starting guard and team captain Chris Finn. STATS “The older guys really mean a lot to our team,” said Stewart. “They were here ahead of me taking the job and have weathered a lot of change.

In a lineup that runs without a dedicated center, 5-10 point guard Yarin Arbib and 6-3 junior Baylor Brimmer join Finn on the perimeter. Arbib posted a pair of double doubles at the recent Torrey Pines Holiday Classic tournament and Stewart describes him as “the type of player who makes everyone else better.”

Arbib’s twin brother Ron, 5-11, fills one forward slot and the fourth junior starter, 6-4 Travis Snider handles the other. “Travis has great footwork in the post,” said Stewart, “and already has nine double doubles this season.”

Stewart will be pushing his charges from a performance standpoint but also has the benefit of being able to look at the Avocado West season differently than some of his colleagues at high-powered progarms. “Every coach is telling their boys that their goal is to finish first in the league and we’re not any different,” said Stewart. “We’re an underdog going in but this team’s greatest attribute is its resilience. My guys work hard and they will compete.

“An advantage of being Division III is that one part of our success in league is walking away with experiences we can hopefully carry forward into the CIF D-III Playoffs,” he continued. “We’ll probably see tougher competition in the Avocado West than we’ll get there.”

The Others

Torrey Pines won last year’s Avocado West title without suffering a loss and is clearly the favorite to repeat but it won’t be a walkover. The 15-2 Falcons have been impressive to this point and veteran head coach John Olive has a history of producing outstanding teams. Canyon Crest was second last year, has four senior starters returning and is currently ranked No. 10 in the section…Coach Brian Baum led the Ravens to the CIF Division II semi-finals last season…Carlsbad, under Head Coach Sam Eshelman is typically a tough team to beat and has a good mix of seniors and younger players that has been strong defensively. Up-and-comer Sage Creek, which won the CIF D-III title as the 10th seed last year, played a limited non-league schedule and has been depending on a youthful collection of players for most of its production so improvement could reasonably be expected for Coach Brandon Dowdy’s squad in the season’s second half.

Cassaw is one who doesn’t expect things to be one-sided. “Torrey Pines is having a great season and will be a challenge for anyone they play,” he said. “But the coaches and players in this league are highly talented. Every night is going to be a fight for everyone.”

Stewart echoes similar sentiments. “Of the six teams in our league, four have been ranked in the top 10 at some point this year. Plus, all of the rankings and predictions are speculative. Kids are kids. On any given night, any high school team can win and any team can lose.”

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