Under new head coach, LCC girls look to continue Avocado West basketball streak against tougher opposition


Yes, from a timing perspective, there could have been an easier assignment for Caitlin Eichlin in accepting her first high school head coaching position. As anyone who has done it will tell you, making the move from assistant to head coach is a difficult proposition under any circumstance. The increase in responsibilities, the added pressure that comes with the spotlight, a seemingly never-ending stream of decision-making and personnel juggling, along with a learning curve that often needs to be navigated on the fly—and that’s just a start.

A former player at La Costa Canyon (2007-2009), Eichlin was offered her dream job after working on-and-off with the program for the last seven years. She was on the bench at the side of 2013 CIF Division II Championship Coach Mario Flores the past two seasons.

“Just excitement,” said Eichlin when asked about her initial feelings of taking over the head coaching job at her alma mater. “As an LCC alum, I grew up as a member of this team, so taking over a program that helped make me the person I am today, that is one of the most rewarding things I can imagine.”

It also gives Eichlin a leg up when it comes to understanding a girls’ basketball legacy that includes three CIF championships, four CIF Open Division berths in the last five years and nine straight league titles. She’s also the first female coach the Mavericks have ever had. Yet, amazingly, the 27-year-old Eichlin has shied away from none of it, not even the specter of section powers Mission Hills and San Marcos being added to the Avocado West mix.

“There’s a little bit of pressure, but I feel I thrive under pressure and love a challenge so it’s exciting,” said Eichlin. “We have high expectations and are really looking forward to the league change.

“I almost want to describe it as a new opportunity. It would have been easier if things had stayed the same but easy wins don’t benefit us or the other team—it’s all about increasing the competitive level. We look at the Avocado West as our league and want to get that 10th consecutive title.”

Here’s an overview of the six Avocado West teams with the four holdovers in order of 2017-18 finish and the two newcomers (current 2018-19 record in parentheses).

Two-time Avocado West Player of the Year Alexis Michain is back for LCC.
(Ken Grosse)

La Costa Canyon (6-5)

Expect Eichlin’s Mavericks to get up-and-down the court and force the action. “I’m a fast-type of coach,” said Eichlin. “I want our players to push, push, push and control the tempo.

“We want to be diverse defensively. We’ll play full court man but also use full and half court zones and traps—mix it up and look to catch people off guard.”

Eichlin inherits a pretty respectable set of talent for her debut season. Gone from last year’s CIF Open Division qualifier are stalwarts Colleen Haggerty and Kaylee Berry, but two-time Avocado West Player of the Year Alexis Michain is back along with junior post Haley Dumiak and senior guard Carolina Sanchez.

An aggressive player who sets the tone for the team on the defensive end, Michain has the combination of skill and confidence top squad’s need. “Alexis is a great spot shooter but she’s not afraid of contact, gets to the line and hits her free throws,” said Eichlin. “She’s a player we can consistently depend on in tough situations.”

Eichlin likes the improvement she’s seen from Dumiak and Sanchez. “Haley’s our powerhouse,” she said. “She keeps getting better every year and it’s clear to see she’s mentally and physically stronger than last season.

“Carolina has stepped up the most in the area of leadership. She’s made everyone feel involved.” That figures to be valuable as the season progresses since Eichlin’s intent is to make ample use of a bench that she wants to sustain the level of play exhibited by her first five.

Three juniors—Katie Quain, Lindsey Zientek and Hannah Etheridge—who all gained experience last year will be counted on to make a bigger impact than they did as sophomores. Eichlin’s also got a group of solid sophomores and freshmen who are thirsting for court time.

“The first thing I told my players is that we have 14 players, all will have a role and playing time is not going to determined by what year you are,” said Eichlin. “The reserves need to get comfortable in the system and with each other. I want my starting five to push the ball and off the bench we need to have players who can maintain that intensity.

“I feel like our strength is having so much talent, from seniors to freshmen. We’re athletic, fast and we’re like a little family and it shows on the court. When you have that type of unity, it’s a hard thing to beat.”

Senior Ari Pagan is Carlsbad‘s leading scorer and rebounder.
(Ken Grosse)

Carlsbad (7-3)

If positive energy is a key component for winning, then consider second-year head coach Donna Huhn and her Lancers right near the top of the Avocado West pack. Huhn is a ball of fire who drove a young, relatively inexperienced Carlsbad outfit to a 16-8 mark and the CIF D-II semi-finals in her first season.

It’s a building process at Carlsbad for Huhn and 2017-18 was the first step. “I want to build a culture where people want to play girls’ basketball at Carlsbad, where we have players that consider basketball their No. 1 sport,” said Huhn. “I have an athletic director who believes in me and lets me push these girls to be the best they can be.” While she’s high on the future, the present’s not looking too bad either.

Conversation about this year’s Lancers starts with post player Ari Pagan. The 6-1 senior is averaging team bests of 15.7 points and 8.0 rebounds per contest, has good hands, a seamless inside-outside game and the poise to hit big shots when called on.

“Ari sniffs out a mismatch right away and knows how to take advantage and defensively makes sure her opponent is not going to get to the rack,” said Huhn. “As a senior captain, we need her to step up and she’s doing that, showing good leadership.”

Carlsbad’s backcourt will be interesting. Returning point guard, sophomore Kaylie (KJ) Ronan, who has been offered a soccer scholarship by Notre Dame, is an outstanding athlete but still developing hoops-wise. The arrival of freshman Alexa Mikeska allows Ronan to surrender some of her playmaking duties and give Huhn a bit more balance and flexibility.

“KJ did a great job for us in a tough situation last year and Alexa is the real deal,” Huhn said. “With those two sharing the ballhandling chores, we’re going to be a faster team in transition.” To date, the pair are combining for 15 points and seven rebounds per game while handing out 54 assists.

Rounding out the starting lineup are juniors Whitney Ogden and Kristen Young. Young, a good jumper and outside scoring threat, is second to Pagan in both scoring (11.0 ppg) and rebounding (6.0 rpg) while Young “is the glue and does all the little things to keep us together,” according to Huhn.

In the big picture, Huhn believes her squad’s depth, defense and team dynamic will make it successful. “We have a lot of young players and getting them in games early will be important—our depth will come later” she said. “We are a really smart team, particularly on defense, and that will be something that carries us. Defense has nothing to do with talent—it’s all about heart, dedication and knowing your game plan.”

Junior Maddie McClurg has moved to point guard for Torrey Pines.
(Ken Grosse)

Torrey Pines (4-4)

Like the Torrey Pines boys, third-year Torrey Pines’ girls basketball coach David McClurg loses a player critical to its recent success. As crazy as it seems, replacing the remarkable Finn Sullivan could be simpler than McClurg doing the same with departed Rachel Shen. The indefatigable Shen seemed to always have the ball in her hands offensively and had the enviable ability to cover up weaknesses with her versatility.

“Rachel was a great leader who ran the offense and put defensive pressure on the ball,” said McClurg. “She brought energy every night, literally never tired and had great competitiveness and desire to win.”

While no longer on the court, Shen’s impact could play a role in 2018-19.

“She was a positive force on the floor and the other players followed her lead,” McClurg says. “That’s kind of rolled over into this year—we’ve got good of kids, they like each other, work hard and are very coachable.”

Two significant returnees will be juniors Beryl Dannis and Maddie McClurg. Over the course of last season, the 5-9 Dannis was one of the Falcons’ most improved players, with the second-best rebounding numbers and providing much-needed athleticism. “Getting consistency from Beryl may be the single biggest key to how much we can accomplish,” said (David) McClurg. “She can score, but we don’t necessarily need her to score 20 per night to be successful—if she plays smart and avoids turnovers, we can be pretty good.”

McClurg, the coach’s daughter and a classic 5-4, three-point shooting two-guard as a sophomore, may have the toughest assignment—handling the lion’s share of the point guard responsibilities. Confident and mentally tough, she averaged 10 pts. per game last year and has been the team’s top scorer over the first eight games this season. She’ll need to provide floor leadership until a true point guard emerges further down the road.

McClurg’s running mate in the backcourt figures to be hard-charging 5-6 junior Cami Kangleon, another good shooter from beyond the arc. A taller, stronger Izzy Ascencio returns in the post. The 5-11 junior pulled down over eight boards per outing last season. Rounding out the starting lineup at small forward will be dependable senior Rehanna Fikre, another outside threat. A group of up-and-coming sophomores should get minutes right away.

Defensively, the Falcons can primarily be found in man-to-man and hope to have that initiate a lot of offense. “We’re going to gang rebound and really get out and go—I think we can score a lot in transition,” said McClurg. “On offense, all of our players have the green light and I’ve told them not to be shy.”

McClurg knows his club will have to fine tune its game quickly to be competitive in the Avocado West. “Are we in the greatest league ever assembled?” asked McClurg rhetorically. “You think about it. Canyon Crest and Carlsbad are going to be dogfights every time we meet and we’ll be happy to get anything we can when facing the other three.”

Senior guard Julia Luo of Canyon Crest.
(Ken Grosse)

Canyon Crest (10-3)

With four starters back and hoping to improve on last season’s fourth place finish, fourth-year Head Coach Scott Tucker’s Canyon Crest squad is off to an encouraging start. With league play yet to start, the Ravens have already matched the 10 wins they had a year ago.

“We’d lost a lot of seniors prior to last year and spent a lot of time learning how to compete at this level,” said Tucker. “We have more experience this year and our three senior starters have really responded. We’re off to a good start.”

That trio—Julia Luo, Tehila Cherry and Andrea Behar—leads a guard-oriented attack that will be looking to push the ball and be tougher defensively.

“We anticipate more scoring balance and had five players in double figures in our win over San Pasqual,” said Tucker. “We’re hoping to out-rebound opposing teams by five-per-game and keep our turnovers at 11-or-under—we’re not quite there yet.”

The extremely quick Luo is one of the triggers for the run-and-gun offense, sharing ballhandling duties with sophomore Elaine Wang while also typically drawing defensive duties on the opponent’s No. 1 shooter. The physical, sharpshooting Cherry, who averaged double figures a year ago, will move inside for her final season, essentially switching spots with Behar, a good 3-ball shooter who can get to the rim.

“Andrea didn’t like playing inside and her progression prompted the trade of positions,” said Tucker. “Overall, Tehila probably our most skilled player and even though she’s only 5-7 has a good body for the block. We want more out of her on defense but she passes well and is a good shooter—she’s got all the skills.”

Tucker calls point guard Wang, “our quarterback and a quiet leader on the court.” She’s a 5-9 whirlwind who her coach claims “burns 500 calories a game.”

Like Behar, sophomore Renza Miller put in a bundle of work over the summer and that effort earned her a starting slot in the post. Tucker says “Renza’s still got a bit of that freshman mentality, wondering if she belongs,” but has confidence that with some improvement of her inside shooting she can be a positive factor for the Ravens. Canyon Crest has some talented freshmen who could earn playing time and seniors Abligail Shah and Alex Dienstbier will provide fire off the bench.

Mission Hills (6-4)

Twelfth-year Head Coach Chris Kroesch has the kind of confidence you get from guiding a program that has won four CIF Championships in the last five years and with a pair of guards sidelined nearly garnered a fifth last winter before letting a 13-pt. fourth quarter lead slip away in the title tilt against Mount Miguel.

Looking ahead, Kroesch has eight letter winners, including three starters, back from that squad, meaning it should be a load to handle, particularly with it’s high-energy approach.

“I would consider defense, full-court run and jump, to be one of our strengths,” said Kroesch. “Kind of like Nolan Richardson’s ’40 minutes of hell’ at Arkansas.

“On offense, we like to get up-and-down with a lot of ball movement, floor spacing and shooting the three. It’s a fun brand of basketball to watch and we’ve got a lot of depth.”

You can start with a pair of seniors, 5-7 point guard Catherine Beus and 6-0 two-guard Kathryn Neff. Both are four-year varsity players. Neff is already signed to play at Cal State Fullerton next season and Kroesch pegs Beus as a potential D-1 prospect.

“Kathryn was a first team All-Avocado East pick last year and has a great basketball IQ,” says Kroesch. “She’s hitting 45% from the three-point line so far and can guard inside and out.

“Beus was banged up last year, tried to come back late and was never really right,” he continued. “She’s super crafty, shoots the ball well and gets others involved. You’ll see her defending the other team’s top ball handler and if we would have had her at full speed last year, we might have won our fifth straight CIF title.”

Five-foot-nine All-CIF senior wing Susie Reynoso is a tough-as-nails slasher who’s rehabbing a high ankle sprain and hopes to be back after the holiday break. Two freshmen could make an impression as an inside-outside duo—6-2 Amber Schmidt and 5-8 Jessica Grant.

“Amber is athletic, runs the floor well and is a good rebounder,” said Kroesch. “She’s still raw offensively but real coachable. I see her eventually developing into a D-1 talent.

“Jessica is a dead-eye shooter who could be a really good player down the road.” For the time being, Grant has seen some run as a starter but the Grizzlies have 6-0 combo guard Auren Isaacson on the way. The senior second team All-CIFer is a transfer from Eastlake that Kroesch describes as “a match-up nightmare with good length and versatility.” She should be ready to roll by the time league starts.

Speaking of league, Kroesch doesn’t have any trepidation about putting his outfit right in the thick of the Avocado West championship chase. “We’ve won five straight league titles and have a 48-game league win streak intact, so we know what the territory is like,” he said. “That said, the Avocado West should give us more competition. LCC and San Marcos are definitely challengers and Carlsbad has an improved roster. I think we’re the favorite but that doesn’t mean anything unless we take care of our business.”

San Marcos (9-2)

The Knights, also tackling their first season in the Avocado West, have been Avocado East powers along with Mission Hills. Head Coach Roger DiCarlo, now in his 15th campaign at San Marcos, is obviously familiar with his long-time rivals but has no apprehension about positioning his squad as contenders.

“We earned a berth in the CIF Open Division last season and even though we lost our two leading scorers—DeeDee Valenzuela and Rachel Roberts (both playing in college), we return 10 players,” said DiCarlo of a band that includes three starters and four key role players . “Mission Hills has to the be the favorite until somebody beats them and I hope that can be us.”

The Knights are another run-and-gun, high pressure team with a subtle difference. “We like to run and actually do it,” said DiCarlo, who seems to be nothing if not forthright. “I tell them they need to play fast and then let them play. We’ll put pressure on the ball and some of the Avocado West teams we’ve played in the past have learned that.”

The probable San Marcos starting lineup will boast plenty of experience in the form of four seniors and a junior. That quintet will feature all guards—Sarah Cloutier (5-10), Ashley Bernales (5-11), Emani Simien (5-11) and Christina DeLeone (5-8) and 5-7 junior point Izzy Flores.

Cloutier and Bernales are both in their fourth season on the varsity and 1-2 on the team in scoring at 16.8 and 13.3 ppg respectively. “Sarah is a playmaker who can also drives the rim and really does it all for us,” said DiCarlo. “Ashley is a great three-point shooter and broke our school record with nine against Santa Fe Christian.”

The athletic Simien is both a good scorer and rebounder while DeLeone, in the words of DiCarlo, “causes extreme chaos on the defensive end and I’ve seen her change games on defense all by herself.” The intelligent Flores runs the show and sports a team high 32 assists while chipping in with 8.3 points per game. First off the bench is future star Megan Roberts, the 6-1 sister of the departed Rachel.