It would be easy to simply paint the 2019 Avocado West League girls’ soccer season as a two-horse race—defending champion Carlsbad or runner-up Torrey Pines. Take your choice and see how the rest of the pack plays out.
After all, the pair were the top two seeds in the 2018 CIF Open Division playoffs. Carlsbad will be returning the bulk of last year’s young squad and most assume Torrey Pines, although missing a large group of seniors, will simply re-load.
While it’s certainly hard to pick against the top duo, it might be instructive to remember two things before prematurely passing out championship hardware. First, both Carlsbad and Torrey Pines were ousted from the 2018 CIF bracket via first round upsets on their home fields. And second, as No. 1 would confirm, anything can happen in soccer. A vignette from the 2018 regular season should offer ample hope for this winter’s would be contenders.
In late January, after romping past Carlsbad early in league play, Torrey Pines was the consensus No. 1 team in the county, cruising along at 12-0-3, and all but being ceded a third consecutive CIF section crown. But a funny thing happened on the way to the awards ceremony. The Falcons lost a stunner to a sub .500 La Costa Canyon team and then, even more shockingly, surrendered three goals in a tie against last place Sage Creek. Torrey managed to right the ship but the slip up allowed Carlsbad to slide by and capture the regular season title.
With last year’s fifth and sixth place finishers San Dieguito and Sage Creek exiting for the Avocado East, replaced by San Marcos (a fifth seed in last season’s CIF D1 tournament) and Mission Hills (runner-up in CIF D2), the 2019 Avocado West chase has the potential to be the most competitive in years.
Here’s a brief overview of the four holdover teams, in order of last year’s finish (2017-18 and 2018-19 record to-date in parentheses).
Carlsbad (16-5-2 / 6-2)
Second-year Head Coach Dean Balent credits an early loss for propelling last year’s squad to one of the best seasons in school history. The game in mind was a 2-1 defeat at the hands of the State’s then No. 2 team, JSerra Catholic of San Juan Capistrano.
“We could have won that game and the performance gave our girls a confidence that carried through the season,” said Balent. “We really came together after that.” Now, Balent’s hoping last year’s achievements and a strong start in the first few weeks can provide a similar springboard for his current club.
“This year, we want to build on what we accomplished last year,” he said. “Winning CIF would be a logical progression. We have a good nucleus back and our seniors are really focused.”
The Lancers return eight starters but they lose one important thing, the element of surprise. But just because opponents know what Carlsbad will throw at them doesn’t necessarily mean it can be stopped.
Balent’s squad will again be very quick, particularly up front where the trio of sophomore Lexi Wright (18 goals last year), junior Taylor Wells (10 goals) and left-footed sophomore Gracie Huebner will prove troublesome for most defenses.
“I think our front group could stand up against anybody,” said Balent. “The year of varsity experience for Lexi and Taylor will leave them much better prepared for games and the season as a whole and allow them to better understand what does and doesn’t work based on their attributes and a particular opponent.
“Gracie, who came up from JV, distributes and crosses the ball very well. The three of them already look like they’ve been together for a couple of years.”
The Lancers are not all offense. Senior Audrey Ketterer is back in goal and the defensive foursome of senior sweeper Denali Tontini, Grace Fairchild, Natassja Chhabra and Rachel Medina looks solid. Multi-talented, technically sound Marisa Bubnis will anchor the midfield and senior Gabby Howard, switched from the back line, will have an impact there as well. Balent is cautiously optimistic with what he’s got.
“I have no real concerns right now, just integrating the new players and having our team understand that we can’t continue to simply play the same way but need to evolve,” said Balent. “This is the toughest conference in San Diego and you can’t anticipate blowing through the schedule. You have to be fully-prepared every time out. That’s what wins.”
Torrey Pines (16-1-6 / 6-1)
For a coach who lost 11 seniors from one of the top teams in San Diego County, Torrey Pines’ Martyn Hansford seems incredibly serene when talk turns to his 2018-19 squad. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the Falcons have won two of the past three CIF Open titles and although they went out in a first round upset last season, they were the No. 1 seed—or maybe it’s simply that Hansford knows more about his new team than anybody else.
“We’re coming off a great year, our record spoke for itself and we deserved our No. 1 CIF seeding,” said Hansford. “But the playoffs are knockout football and anything can happen—only one team can win and West Hills deserved it that day.
“We lose a lot from that team but the experience was valuable for our legacy players, we had strong JV and freshman teams plus a strong class coming in—the program overall is perhaps stronger than ever.” That could be scary.
Two foundation players that Hansford can build his current team around are juniors Tatum Lenain and Jordan Rowell, both starters as sophomores. Lenain, very effective as an attacking midfielder since her freshman season (when she scored the game-winner in the CIF Championship match), has the technical ability to open up defenses and can be deadly inside the box.
“Tatum’s a natural footballer,” says Hansford of the Georgetown commit. “The U.S. produces a lot of robots but she’s much more natural out there in that she sees things earlier than other players. She’s also developing her leadership qualities and working to get the best out of others.”
Rowell, who moves into the center midfielder’s slot, is an instinctive leader with strong playing skills and a warrior-like mentality. “She plays a less glamorous position but is very demanding of herself and a classic No. 6 midfielder—a destroyer not a creator. Having a holding midfielder who can be the first line of defense is fundamental to how modern football is played.”
Speaking of defense, Torrey will have the goalkeeping tandem of junior Arielle Hernquist and sophomore Shayna Ross in place from last season and slide senior Valeria Caballero into the center back role. Versatile senior Sawyer Simo, back after a year with her club academy program, and juniors Emma Herrera and Talia Nakata, elevated after big growth seasons on the JV team, will also be in the mix.
New faces could have significant impact on the offensive end. Those include Sophia Beyer, another academy returnee, and sophomore Olivia Jandreski who has shown good soccer IQ and an ability to bring others into the game.
You might see a few tweaks but figure Hansford to keep his approach relatively status quo. He looks at a highly-competitive Avocado League as an important step toward his team’s ultimate goal.
“It’s anyone’s to win, really,” he said. “You might see the odd blowout but I reckon most games are going to be very tight and there might be quite a few ties.
“We want to win the league. It’s going to be competitive and demanding but if we’re fortunate enough to get into the Open bracket (which Torrey Pines has done in all five years the division has existed), it will be great preparation.”
La Costa Canyon (8-8-7 / )
Despite having just two seniors, Coach Natalie Eckerlin’s La Costa Canyon squad was sneaky competitive in last year’s Avocado West campaign and beyond. The Mavericks were 4-3-3 in league play, the only team to defeat Torrey Pines in regular season action, and reached the CIF D-I semi-finals where they were beaten by eventual champion Scripps Ranch. Tab LCC for improvement this year. Will it be enough for Avo West supremacy? Probably not, but under Eckerlin’s tutelage, they’ll make things interesting.
“Last year, I felt like we were literally starting from scratch with only two seniors and to progress like we did was quite an accomplishment,” said Eckerlin, now in her sixth season guiding the Mavericks. “This year, with a pretty big core returning, we started ahead of where we were last year in terms of familiarity with players, coaches and expectations.”
Two returnees who didn’t play last year could go a long way to determining LCC’s goal-scoring capabilities. Fleet senior Kristy Clanton, who missed most of 2017-18 with an ankle injury, is a good ball-striker off either foot. Another player with good pace, junior Lizzy Teran, spent last year in an academy program after scoring four goals for the varsity as a freshman.
“I think we have a lot of different types of dynamic, attacking players and will be creative in that sense,” said Eckerlin. “Those two will be exciting to watch as they get used to playing together.”
Sophomore Courtney Hilliard, a starter last year, figures to a big offensive presence and one of the team’s main playmakers out of the midfield. Also prominent in the center of the park will be creative ballhandler Lorena Villa and defensive workhorse Kylie Stirling. Defense has always been a calling card for Eckerlin-coached teams.
“At the start of any season, the biggest thing is to nail down your defensive organization and discipline,” said Eckerlin. “And by that I mean not just the layers on the back end but everyone from forward to the back.
“If you’re tough to break down, you’ll always be in games.”
Aggressive senior goalkeeper Riley Laver will again be patrolling the end line and will have a steady pair of defenders, senior Gracie Walke and sophomore Paige Hayes, right in front of her. Versatile junior Bianca Plowman will also play a role there but could also see time up front.
Surveying the league, Eckerlin says, “Last year was tough and I expect no different this time around. There are going to be a lot of teams trading blows. We’re learning on the fly, but I expect us to be in the middle of things.”
Canyon Crest (11-5-2 / )
The Ravens finished 3-2-5 in league play a year ago, placing fourth, just one point behind La Costa Canyon. They bring back a strong nucleus, including six starters, but will be missing a key ingredient. Head Coach Sarah Aguilar, who would be heading into her fourth year, has temporarily stepped aside after having her first child. Matt Favor, Aguilar’s assistant throughout her tenure at CCA, will step in so the change shouldn’t be too dramatic, as the team’s solid start indicates. Favor is encouraged by what he’s seen so far.
“We have the spine of our team back,” he said. “We return our whole back line as well as our senior goalkeeper, Sofia Perri, and that unit should be the deepest part of our team.
“Our defense will be compact and organized and we basically want to play out of the back.” Sophomore Ellie Ballard, an honorable mention all-league choice last season, is a shut down defender with elite speed who was a key component in last year’s group that gave up less than one goal per game.
Favor’s two center midfielders will be four-year starter Emily Gresser and junior Sarah Kowack, who is committed to WCC power Portland. “I think Emily’s one of the best players in the county,” says Favor. “She’s a reliable, super-consistent defender who wins balls in the air and controls our tempo.
“And Sarah is a game-changing athlete—able to make something out of nothing.”
Tenacious junior Sofia Rodgers has the kind of work rate that should help the Ravens be more effective offensively, an area Favor feels can be much improved. He feels that depth will be another factor working on his team’s behalf.
“This year’s seniors make up Sarah’s (Aguilar) first graduating class and it’s the deepest roster we’ve ever had,” says Favor. “The level from 1-18 is solid and I feel we can go to anyone on the bench without a significant drop off.
“We know we have tough teams coming into an already tough league. We won’t be the favorite, but we want to be part of the discussion as far as league championship is concerned.”