Outside of the typically brilliant on-court performances, the biggest story of this year’s CIF Basketball Playoffs was the utter domination of North County, specifically North Coastal teams.
Not only were both the girls (Cathedral Catholic) and boys (Torrey Pines) teams that won Open Division championships at UC San Diego’s RIMAC Arena locals, but girls’ runner-up, Mission Hills, was as well. And that was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
The Cathedral Catholic boys captured Division I with La Costa Canyon doing the same on the girls’ side. In Division II, resurgent Carlsbad programs grabbed both crowns, meaning North Coast representatives swept all of the titles in the top three divisions. Four of those six banners belong to Avocado West schools. Additionally, the San Marcos girls placed second (D-I) as did the Rancho Buena Vista boys (D-II).As if that’s not enough, Mission Vista and San Dieguito Academy went 1-2 in the girls D-III chase.
The six-for-six in the top three brackets was especially notable. Since the advent of the Open Division in 2014, prior to this year, the total number of CIF crowns won by both genders from North Coast institutions in those top three divisions (Open, I and II) was eight. The most in one year was two, which was accomplished three times.
Cathedral Catholic girls’ Coach Jackie Turpin feels it’s a result of the game’s overall growth. “There are so many opportunities available for young players now,” she said. “Honestly, I think the organization of youth level girls’ basketball locally has kids coming in more and more ready to play immediately at the high school level.”
Carlsbad boys’ head man Sam Eshelman thinks the area teams have been in the mix all along. “In the last 10-15 years, North County has been as dominant as any part of San Diego,” said Eshelman. “We have a ton of talent up here and the quality of coaching is impressive. There are a lot of guys who have been doing this well for a long time.
“I’m not surprised. This is not a one-year phenomenon. The number of champions may have increased but part of that is because the old way of doing things, playoff-wise, would have put more of the North County teams in the same division.”
Whatever the reason, from Del Mar to Oceanside, it’s a great time to be a fan of high school hoops.
Below are brief recaps of last week’s results in the top three divisions along with comments and photos.
Open Division Boys – Coach John Olive’s Falcons were remarkable in the first half and showed steely resolve in the second when they held off hard-charging top-seed Foothills Christian, 51-47, for their first Open Division title. Torrey shot a scorching 52.2 percent in the first half and held the Knights to a paltry 20.8 percent while running up a 28-15 advantage. Foothills Christian, the 2016 champion, made several second half runs but the Falcons repeatedly turned them away, never allowing the lead to change hands. Despite being sidelined for much of the third quarter after having a tooth knocked through his lip by an errant elbow, senior Noah Viera led Torrey Pines with 15 points, including a pair of clutch treys deep in the fourth quarter. Senior Michael Pope added 14 while twin brother Bryce recorded a double double with 11 points and a like number of rebounds.
Olive (on winning the title with this team): “Our seniors have worked so hard. They’ve dreamed of this since they were little kids coming to watch us play. I’m proud for them.”
(On his team’s performance): “No question, we played well in the first half. Our defense did not let them get any offensive rebounds which helped. We had too many live ball turnovers which hurt but our transition defense was pretty good, we rebounded pretty well and made just enough shots to win.”
(On how his team turned away several late Foothills Christian challenges): “We made big shots. Bryce hit a big one, Noah had a couple of threes and Mike made a couple. We made big plays.”
Viera (on the great first half): “Our help defense was impeccable. We were getting to our spots early and guys were making the right plays. As Coach Olive would say, ‘we were helping the helper’s helper’ and I think that helped.”
(On his two late threes): “They were getting back into it, the game was close and we needed to make some shots. I was open and hit them with confidence.”
Senior Ryan Brown (on the crowd): “It was instrumental. They were huge Wednesday night at home against Mission Bay and they topped it tonight. They brought energy and were really loud. Having that kind of support, the biggest we’ve had all year, against a smaller school like Foothills Christian, it made a difference.”
Open Division Girls – No. 1-seeded Cathedral Catholic outscored third-seeded Mission Hills, 13-1, from the opening tip and never took its foot off the pedal, smothering the Grizzlies, 55-44. The inside presence of 6-1 junior Mazatlan Harris (13 pts./13 rebounds/7 blocked shots) and freshman Isuneh Brady (16/7/3) on both ends of the floor kept Mission from making any serious runs. Coach Jackie Turpin’s Dons, in just their second Open Division appearance had their largest lead, 17 points, going into halftime and held the Grizzlies, who had won three consecutive Open titles before finishing second a year ago, to a paltry 26.3% from the field. MH senior guard Catherine Beus registered a game high 19 points but Avocado West Player of the Year Kathryn Neff managed just seven, the first coming with less than two minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Turpin (on her team’s quick start): “Their shots weren’t falling and we were able to get some easier shots inside, we weren’t relying on the three. We knew they were going to keep trying to find the rim and just had to make sure we settled in and kept playing good basketball. They weren’t going to roll over, it wasn’t going to be a 40-pt. win.
“We were just playing Cathedral basketball, weren’t really doing anything different. I’m really happy with the way we played defensively. We were locked in, running the floor and playing with confidence—we were ready.”
(On the future of the Cathedral program): “The future looks great. We have a motivated group that works hard. Basketball is important to them and I’m excited about pushing them to be even better.”
Mazatlan Harris (what sparked the early run): “Our energy. We started strong and kept it up the whole time. We could see they were getting a little frustrated and were able to take advantage of that.”
(On her team’s strong inside defense): “We are pretty tall and worked hard to get good position. I was a little confused about why they didn’t just kick it out and shoot more. We’d seen them on film and it seemed they were always hitting a lot of outside shots but tonight they kept bringing it inside.”
Division I Boys – Sophomores Thomas Notarainni (18/7) and Obinna Anyanwu (13/12) combined for 31 points and 19 boards and Anyanwu scored on a putback with three seconds left to lift Cathedral Catholic to a 47-46 decision over Francis Parker. The Lancers led by as many as nine in the first half but Coach Will Cunningham’s Dons narrowed it to two at intermission and the final 16 minutes were nip-and-tuck all the way. Parker’s Kimo Ferrari nailed a three-pointer for the last of his team high 16 points, putting his squad ahead, with 16 seconds remaining and set the stage for Anyanwu’s heroics.
Division I Girls – Some very good prep coaches go their entire careers without winning a section championship. La Costa Canyon’s Caitlin Eichlin took home the CIF Division I trophy in her first year as her top-seeded Mavericks whipped No. 2 seed San Marcos, 56-43, Friday night. It was LCC’s third victory over the Knights. Eichlin might have been pondering the adage about the difficulty inherent in beating the same team three times after San Marcos jumped out to an early 13-5 edge—but keyed by the play of junior forward Hannah Etheridge, her Mavs scored 20 of the next 21 points to go in up 11 at the break. The Knights came out energized to start the second half but a 13-pt. La Costa Canyon surge put them back in control. Etheridge (19 pts./14 rebounds) and her junior frontcourt mate Haley Dumiak (11 pts.) both scored in double figures. Although LCC has been a perennial player among the section’s elite, this was its first CIF girls basketball banner since 2011.
Division II Boys - Paced by junior guard Jailen Nelson’s 21 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, third-seeded Carlsbad took the lead out of the gate and never looked back, knocking off the top seed, Rancho Buena Vista, 72-54, to capture its first CIF title in 17 years. Coach Sam Eshelman’s Lancers were up 17-4 after the first eight minutes, making it an uphill climb for RBV from the outset. The Longhorns closed the gap to just six after three quarters but Carlsbad iced the verdict with a 27-pt. final period. Seniors Carter Plousha and Brogan Pietrocini posted 14 and 13 points respectively, the latter’s 13 rebounds helping the Lancers to a whopping +18 on the glass. Patrick Mclachlan sank four treys en route to a game best 24 points and pulled down 11 rebounds for RBV.
Eshelman (on the progress of his program): “It feels tremendous. I can’t express how proud I am of this team. It’s been a long road to get to this point. May staff and I took over three years ago and the program was in rough shape. This feels like the culmination of a lot of hard work that our kids have put in and our staff has put in. It feels really good.”
(On the effect of the big first quarter): “Our great start showed that we could pile up stops and that was the difference. When we were able to get back and set on defense we forced them to take the shots we wanted by the guys we wanted taking them. They won 27 games for a reason—they have a couple of really talented players but when we were able to force them into tough shots, we had success.”
(On the strengths of his team): “Our kids played hard. We’re big, long and I don’t know how many teams can run the kind of depth we have. Having a point guard like Jailen (Nelson) that we can put the ball in the hands of late in the game, that’s huge for us. At key moments, he made big plays.”
Pietrocini (on his feelings about winning the championship) – “It’s special, particularly getting here from where this program was when I was a freshman. We were DII and didn’t even make the playoffs. We weren’t where we should have been as a program, now we’re finally on our way back. It feels good.”
(On the difference in today’s game): “Our quick start was important and as it turned out, good insurance when we didn’t play that well in the middle part of the game. Overall, we hit more shots than they did and it felt like we wanted it more, played harder at certain points and got a lot of offensive rebounds. We didn’t get into foul trouble and I think we were the smarter team today.”
(On the direction of the Carlsbad program): “I think the last time we won a CIF championship was 2002. In the last two years we beat Torrey Pines and LCC for the first time in years and have pretty much turned this program around—it feels good, especially for my class. We’ve worked hard towards this and everything has paid off. Leaving Carlsbad knowing we got it done, I’ve got no regrets.”
Division II Girls – Displaying an offensive game that worked inside and outside, Coach Donna Huhn’s fifth-seeded Carlsbad crew dominated the first and fourth quarters in defeating sixth seed Grossmont, 64-42, Saturday. The guard tandem of sisters Alexa (20 pts.) and Ava (10 pts.) Mikeska took care of the long range game, combining for six buckets from beyond the arc while senior Ari Pagan (18 pts./13 rebounds) and junior Kristen Young (12/10) handled the work in the paint, each recording a double double. The Lancers’ rise has roughly coincided with the growth of the Mikeska twins whose progress has solidified the backcourt. A team that had wild swings in its play throughout the season was a pillar of consistency in its playoff run, winning four games by an average of 17 points and never trailing in the title clash. Carlsbad out-rebounded the Foothillers, 44-30, and parlayed that number into 27 second chance points.
Huhn (on the development of her team): “I told our team that I want to thank Mission Hills and La Costa Canyon—having to play two league games against tough teams like that helped us get here and helped us today. We took some hits early but we stayed steady, stayed on track. We learned from each and every game and never veered off course. I’m really proud of them.
I’m a mother of four and these kids are like my extended family. I’m so happy that they got to experience this feeling—so proud that my seniors got to have that.”
(On the critical factors in today’s win): “I just think we went back to the basics—the little things. We’re ‘the little things team.’ The loose balls, the offensive rebounds, the stuff that doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet—that’s what we are. That’s our make-up.”
(On senior Ari Pagan): “Ari had a huge week. It’s no secret that Ari and I butted heads early on but I kept pushing her. We have this bond now that will go way beyond this.
“She had 30 points in the semi-final and really got going today in the second half. I told her this was her team and she’s performed like a leader when we needed it most.”
Pagan (on whether or not she could have envisioned this outcome): “Honestly, we had a rough start and we have such a young team, I thought ‘this could be a hard run.’ As the season went on, we started solidifying what we had and it came together but at the beginning of the year, I thought something like this definitely would have been a stretch.”
(On when she felt this team had a chance to win it all): “When we beat Tri-City Christian in the first round, we played really well and all of the sudden we’re thinking, ‘hey, we can do this.’ I think we’re just more confident shooters now and aren’t afraid to take those shots. Before, we were kind of hesitant and would always try to pack it inside. When we began consistently getting points outside, it started opening everything up.”