Mission accomplished — CCA field hockey team now looking for repeat

Canyon Crest Head Coach Kiana Duncan
(Ken Grosse)

Kiana Duncan took over as head coach of the Canyon Crest field hockey team in 2017 with a simple goal—win a CIF Championship in three years. When her Ravens topped Vista, 2-1, last Nov. 17, in the CIF Division I final, Duncan & Co. got there a year early.

The victory, over a team that had beaten CCA in the season opener, capped a phenomenal turnaround from a 1-8 start and gave the school its second section field hockey crown, the first coming at the Division II level in 2013. Duncan’s objective now is to form the kind of sustainable program that can be a regular CIF championship contender—and not just in Division I or II.

“ It definitely feels good coming into the season as the defending CIF champion,” says Duncan, who graduated from CCA in spring of 2013, her senior year team garnering CIF runner-up honors a year prior to that first title squad’s run. “We have a lot of strong returnees and I think are in a really good place to end up with a berth in this year’s CIF Open Division field.

“We’re going to be starting out on a better front with about 80% of our players having played pretty consistently in the off-season. At the start of pre-season practice last week we weren’t working on basic skills but at a much more advanced level.” That kind of progress extends beyond the game field.

CCA junior midfielder Jamie Ma
(Ken Grosse)

The CIF crown has helped increase the local visibility of Raven field hockey, adding to the lure of CCA for local youngsters. “The CCA name is certainly out there now when it comes to field hockey,” said Duncan. “and we’re developing a good middle school pipeline.

“A lot of our CCA players coach at Pacific Trails and Carmel Valley Middle Schools so we’re naturally creating interest from a group of kids who from seventh grade on are thinking they want to be like their coaches and go to Canyon Crest. It’s great modeling.”

Ten players graduated from last year’s roster, including prominent contributors like Anna Hong and Logan LaScola, but that Ravens unit was actually fairly junior and sophomore driven which puts them in an enviable position this fall.

As per years past, Duncan believes her defense will provide a great foundation. The ultra-reliable Hong may be gone but all of the back-end starters will be returning players, including senior goalie Annie Daruwala, a junior All-Avocado West League selection in her first season in the cage.

Daruwala’s initial line of protection will consist of senior Dani Anapoell and the junior trio of Carolina Ceribelli, Caitlin Sicari and Alisha Werry. Duncan is particularly high on Ceribelli’s upside. “I expect that we’ll have a really solid defense overall but Carolina has really grown over the last year and a half and I think she will be the key.

“Anna (Hong) was an outstanding player but Carolina has the potential to be even better if she keeps improving.”

LaScola may have departed along with her team-leading nine goals, but junior midfielder Jamie Ma (5 goals) and sophomore Andie Gately (2 goals) are back and Duncan does not appear concerned about the offense. “We have the nice problem of too many good forwards, something we really haven’t had in the past,” she said. “Jamie (her sophomore sister Hayden is also a CCA midfielder) has some of the best field awareness we’ve ever hand and I’m predicting Andie will be a major playmaker for us.

“One of the things I’d like to see is for us to be more solid throughout the year—be scoring goals to win games, not having to rely so much on stopping the other team.” Nine of the Ravens’ 14 wins last season were by single goal margins.

Duncan’s mere presence is actually a sign of headway. Now entering her third season at the helm, Duncan filled a position that had been occupied by three different people in the three years previous to her head coaching debut. Along with last year’s post-season triumph, the head coaching stability provides a pair of pretty good step towards her stated goal of consistent success. The plan is to stay where she is.

“I’d like to be here as long as I can,” said Duncan, who holds down a ‘real’ job as a coder for a San Diego financial software company. “I kind of told myself that I would be here until the Ma family is done—since I think their youngest is in fourth or fifth grade, that could be quite a while.”

While admitting the balance between job and Canyon Crest is difficult, Duncan is fortunate to have a somewhat flexible work schedule and puts her charges through their training paces between 5:45 and 7:15 a.m. which means prior to classes once school starts. “There’s been a little grumbling,” smiled Duncan, “but they’ll find it’s nice to have all that free time in the afternoon.”

Everything considered, Duncan is upbeat about her team’s prospects this season but knows there are plenty of hurdles to navigate.

“When it’s all over, we could very well be back at the top again but the Avocado West is still going to be tough,” she said. “Torrey Pines will always be a big obstacle and LCC was very young last year so should have a lot of players coming back.

“San Marcos is starting to come on and will be a challenge and we lost a league game to Mission Hills last season. You can’t underestimate anyone.” That doesn’t mean Duncan and her troops don’t have every intention of making it back-to-back CIF banners.

“Of course we would like to it again and this year’s CCA team has a completely different perspective, a different set of expectations,” said Duncan purposefully. “They know they can play with anybody. They know they can win CIF. It’s not just a hope.”

Torrey Pines' top returning goal scorer Erin Poe.
(Ken Grosse)

Here’s a look at the other teams in the Avocado West League:

Torrey Pines

Defending Avo West co-champion Torrey Pines comes into 2019 with a new head coach. East Coast native Courtney Spleen takes the reins from Lucy Busby, inheriting a club that was an overtime loss to Canyon Crest in the last game of the regular season from making it three consecutive solo league titles.

Spleen, who spent last year as an assistant coach at Cathedral Catholic, likes what she’s seen so far from her Falcons and is not hesitant about setting the bar high. “We may have the most skilled team in San Diego and the level of commitment is as good or better than most of the teams I’ve seen,” said Spleen. “My goal this year is to challenge the girls Our level of success will come down to fitness and working together.”

Torrey’s returning class is a strong one but includes just two seniors so experience could be a question mark. Spleen expects to have a strong attacking team that is solid in the midfield. She calls Faith Choe “a force” in the center of the field along with fellow juniors Gracie Jimenez and Leilani Llamas. Another pair of juniors, Erin Poe (10 goals) and Hailey Dewey (6), are the top two returning goal scorers. Poe, whose sister Ryan is a sophomore at Cal, is especially lethal on corners.

Sophomore defender/midfielder Philine Klaus and her freshman sister, Smila could be up-and-comers but goalie, where freshman Bella Anfuso moves in between the pipes, will be a bit of an unknown.

When asked what fans can expect to see from a Spleen-coached team, she stressed executing fundamentals (traps, corners, passing, etc.), a high level of communication and good sportsmanship. It should also exciting. “We’ll have a lot of energy,” said Spleen. “We’re going to come out of the gate attacking and put pressure on our opponents.”

La Costa Canyon

For a program that’s won five CIF championships and as recently as 2016 reached the CIF Open Division semi-finals, 2018 was a catastrophe. The Mavericks lost their first six outings en route to a 4-18 finish. Third-year Head Coach Casey Wollbrinck recognized the problems and feels her team is ready to turn things around this fall.

“We lost some key players last year, particularly in the midfield where CJ Jones and Riley Martin graduated,” explained Wollbrinck. “We struggled to fill their positions and find leadership.

“And I think we had some kids who just didn’t come into fall ready and it took us a while to get back on track.” By that time, it was too late. Wollbrinck feels it was a lesson learned for her players.

“It’s encouraging to see our team come back so gung-ho this year and clear that they have maintained their skills and been playing together over the summer,” she said. “Right away you could see more presence on the field, a different level of communication and more intuitive play.

“There’s a fluidity that wasn’t present at this point last year.”

Two seniors, midfielder Anna Bradley and forward Rian Silcox, who played well at the end of last season, could be very important for LCC in this one.

“Both are intense, go-getters with skills to match and the team responds to them,” Wollbrinck says. “They really kind of took ownership of the off-season and have helped create a new framework for this year.”

Bradley, who racked up eight goals as a sophomore but just one last season, is a strong distributor who knows how and when to get the ball to the right person and heads up what should be a much-improved midfield. LCC totaled just 19 goals in 2018 so figuring out where the scoring will come from will be a critical task. The defense will be the youngest part of the lineup with sophomore Avery Laws making the jump from part-time JV goalkeeper to varsity starter.

“We have a lot of girls in our senior class who are pretty hungry and want this to be a different kind of season,” said Wollbrinck. “I’m expecting us to set a different tone right from the beginning.”

San Marcos

The Knights had a rough introduction to the Avocado West last season, notching just one win. They did reach the semi-finals of the CIF Division II playoffs and eighth-year Head Coach Heidi Harris feels her program is heading in a new direction.

“The Avocado West is one of the toughest leagues in San Diego and it was mentally challenging for our girls,” said Harris. “Along with Mission Hills, we’re the only Division II teams in the league. We want to be at the D-I level of competitiveness and that’s what our strategies are aimed at—it may not happen this year, but that’s our objective.”

San Marcos now has 65 girls in its program and is one of just a handful of schools that has not only a varsity and junior varsity squad but also a freshman/novice group. While the future looks promising, the Knights have just two starters and seven returners back, meaning the upcoming season may be trying.

Seniors Grace Marion and Jazmine Jackson, both defenders, are the two incumbent starters and Harris plans to build from the back end where she’s had some success in the past.

“We’ve been known for our strong defense and can usually hold our own there,” said Harris. “If our defense can keep most of our games low-scoring, we might be able to have some success while our offense is developing.” Jesse Walter, a freshman whose sister Jenna was a midfield starter for us last year, will be the goalkeeper.”

The offense will be definitely be a work in progress. Senior midfielder Alexia Gonzalez and twins Rylee and Mackenzee Hovis are players to watch up front.

Mission Hills

Talk about facing unexpected pressure. Last year at this time, recent Mission Hills High School grad and UC San Diego student Luisa Ayala was getting her feet wet in her first-ever coaching position with the Mission Hills JV field hockey team. Three weeks into the regular season, personal circumstances led to the departure of varsity head coach Lauren Daoust and suddenly, her job was handed to Ayala, a former Grizzly player, now a college student and current member of the UC San Diego club team.

Overcoming a severe learning curve and first-year placement in the ultra-competitive Avocado West League, the 19-year-old Ayala, likely the youngest head coach in the section for any sport, guided Mission Hills to a 12-8 mark and all the way to the semi-finals of the CIF Division II Playoffs.

“I’d call it a good year, I was really happy with how we played,” said Ayala. “That was a difficult situation but by the end of the year, we all had the same mindset.”

The majority of last year’s squad returns, including the senior trio of midfielder Lizzy Tedrow, a UC Davis commit, Kayla Tracy and goalkeeper Jeri Thames. A staunch advocate of teamwork and commitment, Ayala is hesitant to identify any particular area of the team as a strength or start emphasizing in-season objectives.

“I think we have good players in all areas and as long as we have a little of everything, we’ll have something to build on,” said Ayala. “During the regular season, it’s never going to be strictly about winning. We’re in a very difficult league with mostly Division I schools, so how we play is more important.

“That said, this year when it’s playoff time (CIF D-II), we’re hoping to goal the way.”