Defending champ Torrey Pines, newcomer San Marcos top picks in Avocado West boys’ basketball race


The six-team 2019 Avocado West boys’ basketball teams (including newcomers San Marcos and Mission Hills) can be conveniently broken down in groups of two. Title contenders—Torrey Pines and San Marcos. Good enough to beat anybody on the right night—Carlsbad and La Costa Canyon. Rebuilding—Canyon Crest and Mission Hills.

A quick evaluation based on history and pre-season returns signals Torrey Pines and San Marcos clearly out-distancing their four rivals. Coach John Olive’s Falcons, have gone undefeated in winning the past two Avo West titles, reached the semi-finals of last season’s CIF Open Division bracket and won 10 of their first 12 contests this year (one a 77-71 overtime decision over San Marcos).

Coach Dante Carey’s San Marcos club lost some key pieces from its 23-6 2018 Avocado East League-winning squad that also made the CIF Open field. The narrow defeat to Torrey indicates they are capable of challenging for the top spot in their first trip through the Avocado West.

Third-year Head Coach Sam Eshelman’s Carlsbad cagers have been on an upward trajectory since the latter half of last year’s league season and will add a key mid-season transfer, while veteran Dave Cassaw, who has collected four CIF championship trophies during his tenure at La Costa Canyon, has an outfit that has demonstrated plenty of talent but also some of the inconsistency that kept it from challenging for the top of the Avocado West standings last season.

Coming off a superb season at Canyon Crest Coach Brian Baum has to replace the bulk of his starting lineup and leadership lost through graduation. As a rule, he’s shown the ability to get the most out of what he’s given but it would be asking a lot to expect a top half finish against this level. Like San Marcos, Mission Hills is running the Avocado West gauntlet for the first time but longtime Coach Curtis Hofmeister is going to need more than a few months to bring his young roster up-to-speed. typically

Here’s a brief overview of each Avocado West team (current record in parentheses):

Torrey Pines (10-2)

Olive loses just one starter, 6-5 point guard Finn Sullivan (now at USD), off last year’s league title bunch but that’s a piece not easily replaceable. A strong early season ledger against top competition notwithstanding, the Falcons have shown that they’re still a work in progress—discovering how to make the machine run smoothly without last year’s catalyst.

“It’s always imperative for a team to have a good point guard and we knew we we’re going to miss Finn a lot,” said Olive. “Filling that void won’t be up to any one person. We just have to hope as a collective we can rebound, organize and defend, but obviously, he was the instrument that made things work.”

The solution to Sullivan’s absence has been to convert twin seniors Bryce and Michael Pope from wings to point guards. The former is averaging 18.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per contest and has handed out 56 assists while his sibling has accounted for 16.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg and 27 assists. They’re also solid in the clutch but Olive knows not to expect miracles.

“The Popes are pretty complete players, they can handle the ball and score,” said Olive. “Are they finished products as point guards, ‘no,’ it’s a process, even for outstanding players. And as I said, honestly, it won’t be up to any one or two individuals, but everyone playing as a team and sacrificing for each other if we want to be successful.”

Six-foot-seven junior Brandon Angel has shown marked improvement and is averaging nearly a double double (12.6 ppg/8.4 rpg) per outing. Senior guard Ryan Brown has also stepped into a more prominent role, helping out with the ballhandling and doing a lot of the little things that go unnoticed.

Seniors Noah Viera and Victor Novy, both 6-8, are fixtures in the Falcon frontcourt, the latter a transfer from Wisconsin who has spelled Viera off the bench. Depth is on the way in the form of 6-6 San Dieguito transfer Travis Snider who becomes eligible over the holiday break.

“Defensively, since we are a little bigger than most, we should be a good rebounding team,” said Olive. “A lot of people focus on how big we are and that’s fantastic, but we basically have six centers/forwards and a couple of guards. It’s a balancing act to make it all work but that’s high school basketball.”

Olive isn’t buying into the notion that the league will be a walkover for the Falcons. “All the programs are good and it’s going to present a tremendous challenge,” he said. “Most people would feel we are the leaders going in—after 10 games, if we win them all, then you can call us the leaders.”

Sophomore point guard Chris Howell of San Marcos.
(Ken Grosse)

San Marcos (8-4)

After winning or sharing five Avocado East championships in the last six years, Carey welcomes back 11 members and two starters from last year’s CIF Open Division club but loses standouts Cody Klouet and Ryan Hagood, as well as a good deal of his size.

Among the veterans in the Knights’ pressuring, transition-oriented system are talented guards Chris Howell and Elijah Randall. The 6-4 Howell, a sophomore pass-first-type who reads the court well, is averaging 14 points per game. The just-turned-16 junior Randall, also 6-4, started out of position as a point guard his freshman season and lost half of his sophomore year to a broken foot but is back and leading the team in both scoring (17.6 ppg) and rebounding (8.1 rpg). Carey knows he’s got a dynamic duo in the backcourt.

“In addition to being a great playmaker, Chris rebounds and defends well and just keeps getting better,” said Carey. “I would like to see him get a little more aggressive offensively, but he’s one of the best in San Diego and has received offers from a number of West Coast colleges already.

“Elijah is a big guard who can shoot from the outside, get into the paint and he had 19 rebounds in our game against Steele Canyon earlier this month.”

Six-foot-two freshman Devon Arlington, already contributing double digit scoring, gives Carey a third top-notch backcourt man. Other contributors are Will Corbin, a 6-3 senior who can rebound and shoot from distance, and fellow senior Sean Ragland, an unselfish slasher who brings energy on both ends of the court as a second-year varsity player.

One potential impact player is 6-8 sophomore Zakkaiah Knowles, a defensive end on the San Marcos football team who also plays lacrosse. “With his other sports, Zakkaiah hasn’t really focused on basketball, but he’s strong and getting more confidence,” says Carey. “We’re not very big so he could be a key to our development as a potential Open team.” He could also bolster the Knights’ prospects in the Avocado West.

“I think about the new league all the time, it’s pretty tough,” said Carey. “We put together a tough pre-season schedule to prepare and we’re getting better.

“You can’t measure your entire season on championships, but I think we’re capable of getting an Avocado West and even the CIF championship—but getting into the top two in the league would mean we’ve had a good year.”

Carlsbad senior Brogan Pietrocini
(Ken Grosse)

Carlsbad (6-2)

With only three seniors, third-year Coach Sam Eshelman’s team got bruised up a bit last year but parlayed its upgraded play late in the league schedule to a nice CIF D-II playoff run. Now, with eight returnees and four starters at his disposal, he’s is looking to continue that climb.

“We’re going to be aggressive offensively, push the ball, play downhill and get to the rim, five-out-type stuff,” says Eshelman. “Our defensive core is man-to-an and we want to pride ourselves on forcing teams into bad shots—hopefully, that will be our bread and butter.”

With seniors Carter Plousha (6-5) and Brogan Pietrocini (6-4) and sophomore Caleb Nelson (6-5), Eshelman has some size and length.

Plousha, a point forward sort, is athletic, good in the open floor and able to defend multiple positions. Pietoricini, a rugged rebounder and finisher is also an improved shot-maker. The long-bodied Nelson is one of the squad’s better shooters and when he refines his finishing skills will become an even bigger offensive threat. Eshelman calls him “kind of the future of the program.” Six-five senior Gavin Schmidt, another big body who can knock down shots, will help in the depth department when completely recovered from an ankle injury.

The Lancer’s shooting guard is 6-1 senior Chase Murray whose quick release is allowing him to hit over 50% from beyond the arc and persistence makes him an asset on the defensive end. Senior Blake Adams has been holding down the point guard slot in the early going but that figures to change when sophomore Jailen Nelson, a 5-10 junior transfer from Sage Creek, becomes eligible, Dec. 26.

La Costa Canyon senior guard Taro Boyd
(Ken Grosse)

La Costa Canyon (5-3)

In his 20th year as head boys’ basketball coach at La Costa Canyon, Dave Cassaw has seen it all and is usually straightforward when scrutinizing anything to do with his sport. Talking about last year’s Maverick team, he said, “Looking back, our team never really materialized the way we envisioned. We had some talent but just didn’t’ get everything out of it.

“And the coaches and players in the Avocado West are just so good, that doesn’t get it done.” With over half of his starters back and reinforcements coming from the league’s top junior varsity team, Cassaw feels this year’s edition may have what it takes.

“I’m really excited and we seem primed for a good season,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of experience and we’re going to continue to attack and play an aggressive style at both ends.

“We’ve also got a deep team and our reserves are going to be ready to come in and compete. We’ve got good length off the bench and 10-11 guys who will play good minutes.” LCC has shown some positive signs in the early going.

Prominent among the returnees is 6-4 senior Graham Cook, a physical four-year starter who is good off the dribble whether attacking the hoop or setting up others. Cook’s senior running mates are point guard Taro Boyd and inside man Sam Kramer. The 5-11 Boyd, also a sprinter on the Maverick track team, has great quickness, a good handle and demonstrated an ability to drain outside shots at crucial times. Kramer, at 6-8, can set up inside or outside, put the ball on the floor and sink a trey.

Six-one sophomore guard Brendan Perry is one of Cassaw’s JV imports. A do-whatever-you-need variety with a tough streak and no hesitation to invade the lane, Perry chalked up 22 in his varsity debut against Tesoro.

Sidelined most of the pre-season by mononucleosis, junior Charlie Schmitz, a 6-5 part-time starter as a sophomore, could be a valuable cog when he rounds into top form. One of the talented bench players Cassaw referenced is 6-5 senior Charles Williams, a long-armed, athletic wing who can guard the post and be explosive in transition. The head man knows he’s going to need everything synced to challenge for league supremacy.

“In this league, not many guys out-coach each other, so your players have got to be ready to execute on a nightly basis,” said Cassaw. “Every team should be in every game. With Torrey Pines, San Marcos and Carlsbad, I expect us to be in the top four.

“The team that stays unified throughout will end up on top.”

Canyon Crest (3-5)

Coming off a 19-11 season that included a second place Avocado West League finish and wins over every league opponent except Torrey Pines, Canyon Crest Head Coach Brian Baum enters his 15th season at the helm with optimism—in spite of the fact that he has just one starter and four players with varsity experience.

“The expectations are still there despite losing four starters,” says Baum. “We’ve put together a string of good years and I’m happy where the program is.

“We’re going to change some things up and adapt to the personnel we have. We can’t just reload like some other teams so we may look a little different at both ends of the floor but I feel like we’ll be competitive.”

Senior guard Frank Gelfman is Baum’s lone incumbent starter. “Frank was kind of our fifth guy last season but he was really good on both ends of the floor,” says Baum of the 6-2 junior. “He’s a good shooter and a great defensive player who we’ll probably have on our opponent’s best player every night.”

Gelfman has three fellow seniors with him in the starting lineup, all reserves a year ago. Kamon Stewart a 6-4 guard/forward combo player, who won the Avocado West 300 intermediate hurdles title for the CCA track team last spring, is a mid-range scorer with a quick first step to the bucket.

Strong, 6-5 post man Brennan Bordok is a hard-working grinder, excelling defensively and on the boards, and 6-2 wing man Jon Pearson, another physical player, can step out and hit the three but also put it on the floor and drive. “With these kind of guys, we’re pretty big and strong across the board,” said Baum, “so we’ll utilize that in the way we play.” Juniors Justin Lam and Adam Knees share duties at the guard slot opposite Gelfman.

And where will that leave the Ravens when it’s time for league festivities? “I think the league changes are great,” said Baum, alluding to the new additions. “We always want to compete at a high level every night.

“It’s going to be tough, a battle every time out. There are some favorites for sure but I think you might see some surprises on a night-to-night basis.”

Mission Hills (4-9)

It's not the best timing for Mission Hills to be relocating to the Avocado West. A school with a pretty decent hoops history of late and a CIF Division I semi-finalist just a year ago, MH entered 2018-19 way short on experience. The Grizzlies graduated 10 players and 15th-year Head Coach Curtis Hofmeister had another pair transfer. He understands the short-term outlook is a little hazy.

“We’ve got a deep sophomore class and some freshmen will have an impact,” said Hofmeister, “but there’s just one senior on the roster. We’ll be taking our lumps.”

It's not like Mission Hills’ cupboard is totally bare. Junior guard Robert Ligayon, the team’s third scoring option last winter has stepped up to No. 1 and been registering right around 20 points a game in non-league play. He poured in 28 against Poway.

Three sophomores are in the starting lineup, the Grizzlies’ biggest player, 6-5 Diego Czarnoswki, 5-9 guard Jared Hansen and 5-8 point guard Austin Schultz. Hofmeister calls Czarnoswki “an inside-outside talent” and Schultz “a solid decision-maker and distributor.”

Freshman guard Justin White is a future standout getting on-the-job training. Of the 6-2 White, Hofmeister says, “We’re building experience for him right now that will show later in the year and, hopefully, for the next three. He plays like a bigger guy and the ceiling is very high for him.”

Regardless of their youth, Hofmeister will put his charges in primarily man-to-man, full and half court, pressuring the ball with a pack line-style defense. Mission will run a motion offense against man-to-man. He’s a realist concerning his team’s fit in the Avocado West.

“The league’s going to be very difficult every night out and we’ll be the least experienced group of the six,” said Hofmeister. “It’s unrealistic to prognosticate ourselves in the top half but we’re going to compete hard and make it as tough on our opponents as we can.”