Encinitas Advocate Sports

League realignment to mean a new world for San Dieguito athletics

Last year, San Dieguito High School Academy (SDA) celebrated its 80th anniversary. The oldest school in the San Dieguito Union High School District (SDUHSD), it was the district’s only high school until Torrey Pines opened in 1975. Today it is one of four with La Costa Canyon and, most recently, Canyon Crest Academy having joined the SDUHSD family.

Now a campus that’s home to roughly 1,900 students, San Dieguito has undergone several transformations in its lifetime yet it has always been an institution with its own unique, somewhat non-traditional culture and personality, influenced no doubt by its age, beachside location and, in more recent times, the challenges posed by larger, more modern district brethren. On the athletic front, those new challenges have been the focal point in a decision to have the school split ranks with its SDUHSD cluster.

All four schools, along with Carlsbad and Sage Creek High Schools, are currently members of the Avocado League West. Last fall, a committee formed by the North County Conference (a coalition representing the four prep leagues with exclusively North County high school membership) announced that a league realignment, set to be implemented in fall of 2018, would have San Dieguito and Sage Creek moving to the Avocado League East, where they would be grouped with Oceanside, Rancho Buena Vista, Vista and El Camino. Budding athletic powerhouses Mission Hills and San Marcos will be members of the Avocado West next fall.

So why the change and what does the future hold for Mustang teams? Athletic Director Scott Jordon was part of the committee and explained his thoughts on the changes coming to his program.

“Realignment? Personally, I love it and think it will fit us very well,” said Jordon, in the middle of his third year at the helm. “We’ll be more competitive and I like that we’re going in with Sage Creek. They are similar to us and I can see that becoming more of a rivalry.” And what of the existing rivalries with teams from La Costa Canyon, Torrey Pines and Canyon Crest?

“I’m traditional and I would love to compete with our neighbors and district rivals, but I want us to be competitive,” continued Jordon. “The Avocado East is a very good league and I think its new lineup will turn out many champions across the various sports as opposed to our situation in the Avocado West where La Costa Canyon and Torrey Pines essentially win them all (the two schools won 75 percent of the league championships in the past fall/winter seasons).”

A cursory background check shows that San Dieguito has had a somewhat vacillating relationship with athletics. Good, but not dominant in its early years, the Mustangs had their fair share of high water marks including a CIF football championship in 1950 and a boys’ CIF basketball title in 1965. The advent of Torrey Pines created a more demanding competitive environment but the real watershed mark came in 1996 when La Costa Canyon opened.

The burgeoning Encinitas-Carlsbad region had outgrown what San Dieguito alone could serve. When the modern, 90-acre LCC site was built, there was initially some talk of closing down SDA altogether. The lure of its history, location and accessibility won out but changes were required. When La Costa Canyon came on line, the entire staff from SDA was transferred to the new school. The determination was made to “replace” the old San Dieguito High School with the new San Dieguito Academy. Prospective students needed to apply for a limited number of spots and those employees wishing to return to the new SDA had to apply for those positions as well.

Part of this evolution was a renovated “brand” for the district’s founding campus. Administrators, worried that local students and parents, favoring the shiny new LCC option, would be unlikely to choose San Dieguito and its dated campus without making it a more distinctive choice. Thus, a move to “differentiate” San Dieguito from the more “traditional” LCC and Torrey Pines experiences took flight.

When San Dieguito Academy was born, among the innovations were the still-in-use 4x4 schedule and a further accentuation of SDA’s uniqueness. The 4x4 features an opportunity for students to take more electives by effectively having two school years condensed into a one-year time frame. The “uniqueness” aspect, by design or otherwise, led to a de-emphasis on competitive sports (included was the dropping of football) which has been reflected in the student population. Although the school continued to have a virtually full-blown athletic program, the importance of its success and visibility was openly downplayed.

Now, some 20 years later, with the support of the administration, Jordon is attempting to upgrade the competitiveness, profile and reach of his department while continuing to embrace the fundamental nature of the school. It’s a judicious process.

“We’re trying our best to build a program and get sports a little higher on the students’ radar, get them out to events and engaged” he said. “At the same time, we still need to be who we are. We don’t want to lose our identity but be competitive in all sports and be the ‘balanced’ school.”

First-year SDA principal, Adam Camacho, is an advocate.

“As a comprehensive school, part of our role is to provide competitive athletic opportunities for our student-athletes with high ideals of integrity and sportsmanship,” says Camacho. “As with other programs at SDA, I see our athletic program as being another catalyst for teaching integrity, knowledge, skills and leadership qualities that support mental and physical benefits for our student-athletes. It’s another great option which can add to the rich experience that high school is.”

The energetic Jordon is constantly communicating through a variety of channels with students, parents, media and community members to make sure people know about the very existence of the Mustang athletic program and get them educated and excited about what it can do for the overall campus and surrounding area.

The marriage of athletic success and campus culture is clearly not an impossible objective. After all, this is a place that produced a pair of Major League Baseball players in pitcher Greg Minton (SDA ‘69) and infielder Cole Liniak (‘95), as well as kicker Tom Dempsey (’64) whose 63-yd. field goal was an NFL record for 43 years. Pro tennis star and 1980 French Open winner Michael Chang and former USA National Team/MLS soccer standout Frankie Hejduk were also Mustangs.

And while success in the Avocado West may be hard to come by, post-season play, where schools are individually bracketed according to a variety of factors including historical achievement, is a different story. Within the last three years, SDA boys volleyball, girls soccer and boys tennis have won CIF championships in various divisions. Just last weekend, the Mustang girls basketball team snared the CIF Division IV crown.

Jordon, a Cal State Northridge graduate, has a solid set of facilities at his disposal, including a new tennis complex, a four-year-old stadium that is home to the soccer, lacrosse, field hockey and track & field teams and a baseball field, that while lacking some modern amenities, might be the only prep venue with an ocean view. He also seems to have fairly unanimous internal support for the new direction.

As the unit likely most affected by the transition, the coaching staff recognizes the thought process behind the decision. While there may be disappointment in some facets of the transfer to a new league, the consensus is that it’s probably the right move for the program at this time. Third-year boys’ basketball coach Jason Stewart, a member of the 1997 NCAA Championship team at Arizona, is representative.

“I’m very competitive and really enjoyed the challenge of the Avocado West,” said Stewart, whose squad was fifth in this year’s league standings. “This may water down some or our rivalries, but the Avocado East is not some second-rate league. There are no pushovers there.

“We’re going to have to evolve a bit in a new environment, but as a team, we’re looking forward to it. I want so much for the SDA program to be competitive and if our administrators feel this is the best league for us, we’re going to go in with all we’ve got.”

At the heart of Jordon’s reasoning in regard to the new league pairing is the well-being and experience of SDA’s student-athletes. Like Stewart, senior Nate Conger, the captain of the boys’ water polo team, can see both sides of the shift and even though he’s graduating in June, will be an interested observer as things develop.

“It will be a little strange because most of our rival schools are in the Avocado West. We’ll probably still play those teams, just not as much,” said Conger, who knows first-hand the energy a rivalry can generate. “When our team beat LCC for the first time this year, a lot of people took notice. I couldn’t believe how many students were there. Our athletic director was there, even some of our teachers. When they announced it the next day at school, so many people were excited and came up to congratulate me. It was amazing.

“But, I understand that in the long run competitive success across the board is a bigger aspect. Constantly having super competitive games is good for any team and really brings a team together. This move seems to strike a really good balance. If it’s positive for the program and the entire school, I’m all for it.”

Who knows? If Jordon’s program-building plan takes hold and the realignment proves positive, the combination may be so good for SDA that things eventually get to the point where it will wind up back in…yes…the Avocado West. Whatever happens though, you can always count on one thing from San Dieguito—the Mustangs will always follow their own path.

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