Before the newly-reconfigured Avocado West Boys Soccer League had even played a game, it already had a nickname.
“Since word came out about the new alignment, I’ve heard people refer to it as the “super league,” said Mission Hills Head Coach Jacob English, whose team will be transferring into the Avocado West (from the Avocado East) along with nearby rival San Marcos.
Super league? Why not? San Marcos is the defending CIF Open Division champion and they beat their new league foe La Costa Canyon in the championship final. Four of the top five 2018 Open seeds emerged from the Avocado West and one of those was Torrey Pines, which was ranked No. 1 virtually all year and went undefeated in winning the league crown before being knocked out of the playoffs in the semi-finals by La Costa Canyon.
Every one of the six teams—Torrey Pines (State D1-2018), La Costa Canyon (CIF D1-2016), San Marcos (CIF-Open 2018), Canyon Crest (CIF CD1-2017), Carlsbad (CIF Open-2014) and Mission Hills (CIF D3-2016)—has captured either a state or section title in their division over the past five seasons.
The coaches are all top shelf veterans. Carlsbad’s Jeff Riccitelli (starting his 26th season at the helm) and Torrey Pines’ Andy Hargreaves (22nd) are the longest tenured while Matt Hidalgo of San Marcos is the neophyte of the group but already in year five commanding the Knights. Contrary to what outsiders might expect, a high percentage see the toughening of an already formidable lineup as a positive.
“For me, the better the teams in the league, the better I like it,” said Hargreaves. “I don’t like to see games where you’re expected to win and expected to win big. I like games where you go in with no idea who is going to win and wish every game could be like that.”
CCA’s Lockhart takes it a step further. “Our league schedule gives our teams a huge advantage going into post-season—we’re playoff ready,” he said. “We have a whole group of programs that know what it takes to win and that’s half the battle.”
Looking at the Avocado West’s place in the section, Hargreaves says, “I would be extremely surprised if the Open champion doesn’t come from our league.”
Below is a brief overview of the six teams, listed in the order of finish in 2017-18 with last year’s overall record and this year’s results to-date in parentheses.
Torrey Pines (26-1-4 / 0-1-1)
Hargreaves’ side posted an incredible 26-1-4 record last year, went undefeated in capturing its second straight Avo West crown and snared a State Championship to boot. The only blemish was a 3-2 (OT) defeat at the hands of LCC, an opponent the Falcons had beaten twice and tied once previously, in the CIF semi-finals. This year’s squad has its eyes on rectifying that slip-up.
“From my perspective and the kids’ feedback, we were as good as we could have been last year and it was an awesome season,” said Hargreaves. “But our kids really want to win CIF and I believe that will be one of our strengths—ambition.
“They want more than what happened last year. They have the drive and camaraderie—the key is that some of our seniors are well-versed in what it takes.”
It is not going to be easy. Torrey graduated a dozen reliable players and replacing the likes of versatile, critically important Santiago Majewski in the midfield and the defensive duo of Erik Herrera and Geffen Cooper will be tough to do. But the Falcons have always had incredible depth and some of that should come to the surface this winter.
Hargreaves expects to have four seniors, headed by Garrett Seamans, manning the defensive back line in front of junior goalkeeper Nick Bello, who takes the reins from Paul Bartlett and went over 1,000 minutes without surrendering a goal in his most recent club season.
Up front, names like Ted Merrifield, Michael Mines, Denzel Zepeda, Ali Demiralp and Alec Philbbosian figure to become familiar to Falcon fans. Mines, a wide attacker, scored a handful of timely goals as a junior and Merrifield, who spent most of his time in the midfield last season and kicked for the Falcon football team in the fall, could be more of a scorer in his final season. “Merrifield is one of those kids you can count on for anything,” said Hargreaves. “He’s capable of playing many different positions.”
It’s going to take a different look to get Torrey Pines to the promised land. “We have a ton of potential but have no superstars, just a solid group of guys,” said Hargreaves. “Last year we had a style that worked every single game. This year we’ll need to be a little more flexible and our players are going to have to handle that.”
Canyon Crest (17-2-7 / 4-1-1)
The Ravens tied Torrey Pines twice last year, did not lose a league contest and some untimely injuries probably cost them a legitimate shot at a better CIF playoff finish. That said, Lockhart’s club may be one of the toughest to evaluate. It also loses a slew of standout seniors and doesn’t appear to have anyone who immediately stands out like several players did last year. Yet Lockhart is typically optimistic.
“We’re deeper this year in our various positions than we were last year,” he said. “We’ve had some injuries on defense already and been able to withstand them. Our strength will be our soccer intelligence, making the right passes, that type of thing, and the fact that we have three solid keepers who are going to be pushing each other. I expect our defense to be stingy.”
The three keepers include senior Brandon Kaleta who may well have been the best at his position in the league last year, and among the defense stalwarts are Rish Jain, who moves over from midfield, and four-year player Maxim Kraynov. “Rish is such a smart player and was outstanding last year but I’m confident his skills will translate to his new role,” said Lockhart. “No matter what he does, he’s good at it.”
Physical, but super smooth senior Cade Kronemyer anchors the midfield but the attacking corps, which will miss the dynamic presence of last year’s leading scorer Danny Najifian, may pose a few questions.
“Our weakness might be finishing but we’ve got some people that I think can step up,” said Lockhart, whose team has not been able to produce more than one goal in any game so far. “Rafael Panero Ren (sophomore) could be a special player before his career is over and Daniel Blatcher (senior) has improved his foot speed a lot and I suspect he’s going to score a lot of goals.”
Via early season outcomes, Lockhart likes the direction his team is trending. “Everyone knows how hard our conference is,” he said. “But I really like my team and feel like we have as good a chance as anybody.”
La Costa Canyon (13-8-6 / 2-1)
At its best, last year’s La Costa Canyon squad was gifted enough to beat anybody (see its CIF semi-final triumph over Torrey Pines), but too often, the Mavericks were inconsistent which brought about a 13-8-6 overall ledger. Coach Craig Dean’s lineup will be missing some key names—Jay Chong, Collin Wagstaff and Liam Filler, to name a few—but may be primed to turn out improved results this season.
While some talented individuals are gone, Dean returns 14 varsity players and seven starters. His 27-man roster sports 21 seniors and six juniors, numbers that scream “watch out.” That alone is why many around the league are touting the Mavericks as the team to beat. While Dean won’t go quite that far, he’s clearly excited about his crew’s prospects.
“I think we’ll be really, really good,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of players who have really matured.
“This year, we don’t have one or two standouts that everybody knows about, but overall, a very solid group. It’s a little odd, but I kind of like it this way.”
Dean speaks with certainty about the talent he has from front-to-back. On defense, senior center back Jake Aaknes has three years of varsity experience. He’ll be paired up with a trio of fellow seniors, returning starters Jack Hnatek and Christian Kamplf as well as Markus Lee, a part-time starter in 2017-18. Senior Gavin Simmons is also returns to handle goalkeeping chores. “I have no concerns in that area,” said Dean. “I’m very, very confident in our defenders.”
He has similar feelings in regard to his midfield. “I’m extremely comfortable with six players and feel that putting any of those six out there we’ll be just as strong.” Prominent among the midfield cast are seniors Nick Ciepley, a returning starter, Ryan Ashby, an on-and-off starter as a junior and Eugene Sakai, who will also see duty with the defensive unit.
Up top, two seniors of note are skillful Robbie Stirling, who sat out last year with a broken leg, and Dane Bruhahn, who spelled Chong as a junior and is lauded by Dean for his decision-making and movement off the ball.
Always a 4-3-3 devotee, Dean has indicated he might be inclined to change things up a bit tactically, using the pre-season to see if he thinks other options have worth and what will be the best fit for his team.
Carlsbad (7-8-6 / 2-1-2)
The Lancers’ Riccitelli closed out last season feeling his team, hurt by close losses and a surprising first round bounce from the CIF D-I bracket, had underachieved a bit.
“To be honest, I was a little disappointed,” he said. “I thought we played tough in all of our games but had the talent to do better.”
If he’s gunning for a bigger payback, he’s got a challenge in front of him in 2018-19 with just six players and one starter returning.
“We’ll be young more than inexperienced but our coaching is going to be tested,” said Riccitelli. “It will be a question of how quickly they can adjust to this level.”
That may be most apparent in the defensive department where the dependable presence of multi-year starters/leaders Marcos Lopez, now playing at Cal State San Marcos, and Tyler Francis, the placekicker for the University of Colorado football team, is no longer available. The 3-5-2 formation favored last year may be shelved for a more defensive-oriented style until things are settled.
“Defensive youth will be a concern, we don’t have a single player returning and that includes our goalkeeper,” Riccitelli admitted. “Because of inexperience, we’ll probably play more with four defenders and do more counterattacking.”
Riccitelli caught a break in goal where the Lancers have been solid over the past decade. Senior Duke Paane, the MVP of the freshman team three years ago, has decided to give soccer another shot. After playing football, Paane provides a solid, 6-3 body in front of the net although he figures to be raw from the time off. The defense will also benefit from the presence of sophomore holding midfielder Joe Totoris, a stay-at-home type who’s good in the air as well as initiating the offense.
Junior Christian Cazanes, a three-goal scorer as a soph, will float between forward and center mid while senior newcomer Bruno Munoz and sophomore Owen Malone, up from the JV squad, could bolster the attack.
“The level of the league is crazy,” understated Riccitelli. “You could literally go 0-10 and still be a really good team. With the little I know now, I hope we can finish in the middle, maybe a little higher.”
San Marcos (20-2-4 / 2-2-2)
According to Hidalgo, the Knights’ 2018 CIF Open Division conquest (the first boys’ Open title in any sport at the school) has created new expectations not only for the boys’ soccer team but the campus as a whole.
“The bar has been set at a high level,” says Hidalgo, who is the reigning CIF Coach of the Year, “and the new kids coming into the program are excited to be part of that.”
As far as maintaining that level, Hidalgo will have his work cut out for him with nine returnees but just three starters back in the fold. Gone are over a dozen seniors including 2018 CIF Player of the Year Pedro Mercado and fellow All-CIFer Jose Sanchez. That pair, along with another senior, Parker Norris, accounted for over 60% of the San Marcos goals last season.
“Those type of player are hard to replace, but we’ve got some young guys who can be very good,” said Hidalgo. “And our three senior captains—goalkeeper Grant Tilley, defender Michael Korelov and midfielder John Bernal—give us a great nucleus of experience to start with.”
All are multi-year starters. Hidalgo says Tilley, who could graduate with most of the school’s goalkeeping records, “has great knowledge and is the kind of guy who will recklessly throw his body out there.” He calls Korelov “super competitive, a big part of our past success and through his on-and-off the field leadership crucial to our continued success.” Bernal’s offseason work has Hidalgo predicting that “I expect him to be first team all-league at the end of the season.”
The coach is enthused about the potential combo of quick junior Jarek Kitchen and senior Ryan Anderson in the attacking end. “You can tell they’ve got chemistry that is not individual based,” he said. “They know they can do a lot more when they work together.
The Knight roster features nine sophomores including Zach McClellan, who Hidalgo dubs “the future of our defense” and Christian Smith, who he says, “can really play any position and could be one of the best we’ve had in our program.”
Hidalgo sums 2018-19 up by saying, “We’re a very young team, talented but it’s the first time at the rodeo for many of them. The ultimate goal is to maintain this new level we’re at. I think we’ll be competitive. The top half of the league would be the goal.”
Mission Hills (6-13-4 / 2-1-1)
When Jacob English took over at Mission Hills six years ago, he inherited a program trending downward. Four years later, he guided the Grizzlies to CIF and State titles at the Division III level. He finds himself facing a new “rebuilding” situation after a posting a 6-13-4 record last year. “This is different from my first few years because the kids know what the expectations and goals are,” says English.
An important building block will be senior keeper Richard Pena, the last remaining link to the Grizzlies’ CIF/State championship side. Others include senior Cody Hewitt, a big, physical center back who is dominant in the air despite standing just 5-9, and junior midfielder Eddie Bersino, a very technical player who’s a good dribbler, passer and shooter. “Eddie’s very creative,” said English. “When he has the ball, something’s going to happen.” Bersino will get support from defensive-minded Victor Morales and JC Santiago and the hope is the threesome will gel to make midfield a strength.
English has a young forward crew. Though there will likely be upperclassmen starting early, he expects a group of sophomores to quickly be in the mix. He’s particularly excited about sophomore Seth Moore, a solid goalkeeper who switched positions as an avenue to playing time and scored his first goal in the second game of the season.
One player English needs to replace is intrinsically-motivated central midfielder Eric Ponce. “That was a tough loss,” English said. “We’ve got leaders now but none quite like Ponce. Every good team needs somebody like that.”
As for how the Grizzlies will fare while stepping up to the Avocado West, English said, “We’re hoping to play the underdog role. It will be tough, no doubt, but I’m counting on some people underestimating us. We’re not going to roll over.”
Avocado West’s double round robin (home and away) play starts Jan. 9 with San Marcos @ Canyon Crest, La Costa Canyon @Mission Hills and Carlsbad @ Torrey Pines.