The season ahead: Avocado West girls basketball preview

Every sport has its gold standard, the team that wins year-in and year-out and challenges for championships—the benchmark by which others measure themselves.

When it comes to girls’ basketball on San Diego’s North Coast, that type of model has been constructed by La Costa Canyon. The players, coaches and affiliations may change but for the last 10 years, the Mavericks have been in the same place at the end of the year—atop the league standings and a factor to be reckoned with in the CIF Playoffs.

“LCC has been head and shoulders above everyone else for quite a while,” says Canyon Crest head man Scott Tucker. “That tradition of success tends to build on itself and they’ve developed a community basketball feeder system that produces kids who are ready to play when they get there.”

New Carlsbad Head Coach Donna Huhn says, “They’ve had consistency from a coaching perspective and that breeds a belief in the strength of the system. Year-after-year they get girls who have a fire and drive to continue the winning legacy. That’s what the rest of us are trying to build.”

Coming off a 25-6 season in 2016-17 that included a perfect 10-0 slate in the Avocado League West, La Costa Canyon will again be the favorite when conference action starts in mid-January. But despite an 11-4 mark coming out of the holiday break, LCC Head Coach Mario Flores is certainly not overconfident.

“I think people will tell you we’re probably the best and should win the league but I know and I tell our team that we’ve got to be prepared and play our best every night,” said Flores. “Nothing’s going to be easy. Last year we had a few blowouts in league but everything’s going to be a little tighter this time. There are several teams that are clearly better and there’s definitely a little more parity overall.”

Here’s quick look at the six Avocado West squads, listed in order of last year’s finish (pre-season record as of Jan. 7):

La Costa Canyon (11-4)

Flores, in the second year of his third stint as head coach of the Mavs, literally took over a day before the start of last season yet was still able to produce the same type of results he delivered in his first two turns. He’s matter-of-fact in regard to what foes can expect from his squad. “Everybody knows we’re going to push the ball, try to run you and wear you down,” says Morales, who now has a dozen years total at the LCC helm. “If we can’t, we’ll look for a quick little secondary hitter and then we’ll get into our offense—that’s the last thing we want to do.

“On the other end, we’ll play good, hard-nosed defense. We’ll switch up a little bit but go man about 90% of the time.” The Mavericks lose just one player, Margaux Eibel (now at Kent State), who played significant minutes last season, meaning they have ample experience.

Leading the way will be a pair of seniors—Kaylee Berry and Colleen Haggerty. The 6-foot Berry, headed for Hawaii Pacific next year, figures to cause headaches for most opposing coaches. “Kaylee’s just a difficult match-up,” says Flores. “She can play inside but if you cover her with a big kid, you can step her away. She’s like a high school version of the college stretch four.”

While maybe not as immediately visible or possessing Berry’s press clippings, Haggerty is just as impactful according to her coach. “I always call her the glue of the team because she’s so solid and steady,” says Flores. “She does what you need her to do. Sometimes I have to get on her to shoot the ball but she’s averaging 10-12 points per game right now.”

Of course the Mavs are more than a two-player team and Flores is already looking towards the future. “We have four sophomores who played on the varsity as freshmen last year and they’re getting better every day. That’s our new generation. I think we’re going to be capable of beating people in a lot of different ways. We missed Kaylee a few games over the break and found ways to win.”

Canyon Crest (6-9)

Second in the Avocado West and a CIF (D-2) quarterfinalist last season, Canyon Crest lost six seniors (three starters) but fifth-year head coach Tucker is still enthusiastic about the possibilities for his 2017-18 club. The fortunes of Tucker’s youngish roster will probably ride on the performance of a backcourt trio—juniors Tehila Cherry and Julie Luo and sophomore Elaine Wang.

“We have some really quick guards who like to push the ball,” said Tucker. “If we have numbers in transition, we’ll be dangerous.”

Two-guard Cherry is the catalyst. Strong and skilled, she is the Ravens’ primary ballhandler and a potent three-point artist. “Tehila is an excellent outside shooter but can also take it to the rim,” says Tucker. “And she can go inside if we ask her to.”

Wang, meanwhile, has been a something of a revelation in the early going. “Elaine was a little wide-eyed last year but she has really matured,” praised Tucker. “With her, it’s all about confidence and she’s getting more every day. She’s our quarterback out there and needs to understand that she can compete at this level.”

Senior Audrey Tharp, a starter before suffering an ACL tear last year, has worked hard to get back and will provide a strong presence in the post as well as anchor the back end of the Ravens’ half court trapping defense.

Torrey Pines (6-7)

The Falcons played .500 ball while finishing third in the Avocado West standings last season and will be right around that number heading into league play this year. But, like Tucker, Head Coach David McClurg has high hopes for his squad and feels the early season record may not do them justice.

“We’ve got a young roster with five sophomores and two freshmen,” explained McClurg, a former TP men’s coach, now in year two of his second shift in the top chair for the women. “We played in some tough early tournaments where we may have been a bit over-matched. That may ultimately prove to be a good thing. We’re not where we need to be yet but I think we’re getting there.”

In addition to being relatively inexperienced, the Falcons may also be the smallest team in the league. That’s not a major concern for McClurg. “We are really small,” he said, “but we play really hard defensively. We’re scrappy and will be looking to turn our opponents over by playing harder and faster. If we do that, we’ll push it up and try to score quickly.”

Five-foot-seven senior point guard Rachel Shen epitomizes the style McClurg wants from his outfit. “Rachel is such a good athlete and she has a motor like most have never seen,” says McClurg. “She has great tenacity and can go 100 percent the entire game, offensively and defensively.”

The coach’s daughter, soph Maddie McClurg, who checks in at 5-6, is Torrey Pines’ top percentage shooter from both three-point range and the free throw line. At 5-10, another sophomore, Izzy Asencio, is the Falcons’ “big girl.” Showing marked improvement over her freshman season and still getting better according to McClurg, she has been the team leader in rebounds and blocked shots so far.

The optimistic McClurg feels anything is possible for his fledgling club. “We’re going to have to keep getting better, but we really believe we can win the league.”

Carlsbad (9-3)

Newcomer Huhn is the third head coach in three years for the Lancers and looks to bring “LCC-type stability” to the Carlsbad program, going as far as committing to her current position until her second grade daughter graduates from high school. Huhn sports an impressive resume, including a playing career at Florida International and assistant coaching stops at D-I East Carolina and Pacific. Although eight seniors are gone from last year’s club, she has a couple of talented juniors to build around in Ari Pagan and Rae’Hijah Cooper.

Huhn calls the 6-foot Pagan, who is shooting almost 40 percent from beyond the arc and recently rattled off three straight double doubles, “very competitive, someone who really attacks the rim and can finish.” She says Cooper, slowed by a pair of knee surgeries, “has great hands and a good feel around the basket.

“We really have a great inside game and are good in transition because those bigs can get up-and-down the floor.”

Sophomore wing Whitney Ogden will play a big role after sitting out last year and the ultimate level of success may depend on how much a “super young” backcourt develops over the course of the season. Freshman KJ Ronan, the starting point guard, is an elite/Division I level soccer player who has joined the hoops team because she can’t play prep soccer due to being part of U.S. Soccer’s academy program.

“Right now, KJ is just an incredible athlete who gives you 30-plus minutes of hard work every night,” said Huhn. “When she’s got a little more experience and cuts down her turnovers, she’s going to be a real plus for us in the backcourt.”

Huhn stresses competitiveness above all and knows that trait can most easily be demonstrated on the defensive end. The new coach likes what she sees there. “We’re a physical team and we’ve got physical guards who will get up in the passing lanes,” says Huhn. “We’ve also got very smart players and that allows us to change up our looks a lot.”

Sage Creek (6-5)

In year two at Sage Creek, Head Coach Nigel Cabral is not sure whether his team is considered Division III or IV by the CIF but he does know that it is extremely young and in “arguably the best conference in San Diego.” While his definition of success might be a little different than some of his Avocado West colleagues at more high-powered programs, Cabral is not shy about facing the challenge.

“I felt we definitely competed last year and started the process of creating a new culture at Sage Creek,” says Cabral. “We’ve got good, developing basketball players and they are better teammates than any other team I’ve coached. That’s going to pay dividends when it comes to league.”

Senior co-captains Emma McHale and Holly Alvarez give Cabral a nice foundation. McHale offers a reliable outside shooting presence while Alvarez, also a wing, is more of a slasher and the type of utility player her coach is comfortable “plugging in anywhere.”

With a relatively inexperienced lot, Cabral is inclined to keep things uncomplicated. “We use the ‘Keep it Simple System (KISS),” he says. “I’m a big believer in defense. If you can play good defense and rebound, you’re going to win a lot of games.”

Two sophomore starters—point guard Sydney Tomaneng and post Claire Perhach—figure to help with that endeavor. Cabral calls Tomaneng his field general and says, “She knows the value of possession, is a good defensive player and can also help with rebounding. I think we’ll be a good transition team and Sydney will be key as far as pushing the ball up court and creating easy scoring opportunities.”

Perhach, whose volleyball background has been an asset as far as timing on the boards, is a strong, physical rebounder. “Claire’s only 5-9 or 5-10 but she does a great job of boxing out,” says Cabral. “She’s also got good footwork and has become very effective offensively in the paint.”

San Dieguito (6-5)

Sixth-year San Dieguito Head Coach Aubree Smithey envisions her 2017-18 outfit playing an up-tempo style on both sides of the ball, saying, “that’s where we’re at our best.” But when you’ve lost your only senior (starting center Lena Mau) to an injury and have a roster heavily laden with freshmen and sophomores, you don’t always get what you want right away.

“We’re pretty young and still figuring things out,” says Smithey, whose Division IV squad faces a rugged task in the primarily D-1 Avocado West. “We’re learning every day and seeing where everyone fits in best.

“As the season goes on, I know we’ll get better but because we haven’t been together, it’s a process.” Although she is unambiguous about the fact that her team’s overall success will require contributions from every corner, Smithey is intrigued about the impact sophomore Addison Werbelow might have. Second team all-league as a freshman last winter, Werbelow is an aggressive six-footer who played mainly at the four spot for the Mustangs a year ago.

“Addie has been very effective so far this season and I’m looking forward to seeing what she can do once league starts and the level of play is a little higher,” said Smithey. “She is capable of playing inside and out and this year we’re going to use her some at small forward and give her additional outside opportunities.”

Also vital to the Mustangs is another sophomore, Jackie Sedlock. Smithey says, “Jackie’s all hard work. We always have her on the opponent’s best player and she’s really the engine for our team.” Given that Werbelow and Sedlock combined for 40 of SDA’s 45 points in a recent outing might mean Smithey will need to cultivate some additional offensive options if her squad hopes to move up the league ladder.

Week one Avocado West Schedule:

Wednesday, Jan. 17 Sage Creek @ La Costa Canyon 5:30 p.m.; San Dieguito @ Torrey Pines 5:30 p.m.; Carlsbad @ Canyon Crest 5:30 p.m.; Friday, Jan. 19 Canyon Crest @ Torrey Pines 5:30 p.m.; San Dieguito @ Sage Creek 5:30 p.m.; Carlsbad @ La Costa Canyon 5:30 p.m.

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