For members of the Avocado West boys’ soccer league who might have been thinking the loss of a dozen seniors would make the defending league champions vulnerable, Torrey Pines sent out a strong message last week—“don’t count on it.”
Displaying talent, depth and poise, Coach Andy Hargreaves’ re-tooled cast went undefeated, topping three of the top 25 teams in the state while winning its second straight Southern California High School Classic (National Showcase Division) title by defeating Orange County power San Clemente in overtime (penalty kicks) Saturday at Oceanside High School.
The Falcons, just 3-1-4 overall after facing a rugged pre-season schedule, are trying to be as prepared as possible for the upcoming Avocado West campaign (which starts Jan. 9), a subsequent run at their first CIF Open Division championship and, hopefully, a berth in the CIF Southern Regional Tournament, which they won in 2018. So far, Hargreaves likes how the plan is working.
“We try to play the toughest teams that we can schedule early,” says Hargreaves. “It helps with consistency because you’ve got to bring a certain level of quality to each game—the kind you’ll need in a post-season single elimination format.
“If you play against poor teams and you don’t have to do that, you may win but it doesn’t really help anybody. The type of games we played this weekend will benefit us down the road.”
Torrey Pines showed plenty of grit in knocking off San Clemente in the tournament final. The Tritons were 9-2-3 coming into the 24th annual SoCal event and ranked 12th in the state. After a chip shot from a sharp angle provided them a 1-0 advantage in the game’s 14th minute, they led all the way until stoppage time at the end of the second half. With less than a minute remaining, Falcon senior Brian Pacula launched a 40-yd. free kick into the box. Following a chaotic scrum, senior Carsten Nahum got his left foot on the ball and poked it past the Triton keeper from short range for the equalizer.
“There was a scramble around the goal, the ball came down in front of me, I kind of slid into it, put it on net and it went in,” said Nahum afterwards. “It was tough to play three games in a row like this but I thought we worked really hard, came together and were able to put it away at the end.”
Following a pair of scoreless 10-minute golden goal OT periods, the outcome was decided by penalty kicks. After Torrey senior Michael Mines calmly drilled the first PK into the back of the net, junior keeper Nick Bello put the Falcons in the driver’s seat by parrying away the first San Clemente attempt. Senior Alec Philibossian and Dallin VonStrahl also scored for Torrey Pines but after a fourth round Falcon miss, Bello came up with a second big save that kept the Tritons from pulling even. That put Cody Black on the spot with a chance to clinch and the junior casually converted to send Hargreaves and Co. home with the champions’ trophy.
“We stayed in the game, keeping it at 1-0, and wanted to win in any way we could, whether it was regular time, overtime or PKs,” said Bello. “We went out there in PKs and tried to be as confident as we could.
“That first save set the momentum for the rest of the PKs and gave me a lot of confidence too. I was ready to block as many as it took to get the win.’
Torrey Pines reached the final by defeating another dominant Orange County club, then-undefeated Mater Dei (No. 23 in the state), 1-0, in its opener and NorCal invader Richmond, 2-1, in a semi-final overtime thriller. The only goal of the Mater Dei contest came when freshman Kai Walsh ran down a long pass along the end line and played it back to senior Denzel Zepeda who produced the finish.
In the Richmond match-up, it was Torrey Pines initially taking the lead in the first half when Zepeda was cut down with the ball along the boundary, left of the goal, earning a penalty kick which he successfully handled himself. The Oilers, ranked 14th in the state, knotted the game on a controversial direct free kick in the second half. The affair went to OT but didn’t last long as Torrey senior captain Ted Merrifield scored the deciding goal less than three minutes into the first extra period.
All told, it was a solid display by Hargreaves’ side which had to overcome a variety of personnel issues. Four starters, including the senior defensive duo of Nico Castellanos and Garrett Seamans, were not available for the entire tournament and injuries put Zepeda and junior Owen Underwood on the sidelines for the San Clemente clash.
“We were down players, had to switch some positions, alter our formation a bit and really needed some other guys to step up in the final—and they did,” said Hargreaves. “They’re (San Clemente) a good team and we knew that.
“We wanted to keep it close, were able to get a scrappy goal late and that was enough.”
Schedule for Week One of Avocado West League play (note—girls teams play on same day at opposite sites):
Wednesday, Jan. 9 Friday, Jan. 11
La Costa Canyon @ Mission Hills Canyon Crest @ La Costa Canyon
Carlsbad @ Torrey Pines Torrey Pines @ Mission Hills