The Avocado League West boys’ basketball season started Wednesday, Jan. 10. and the two local entries — Torrey Pines and Canyon Crest Academy — figure to be slotted prominently in this year’s derby. It seems hard to call a 10-5 Canyon Crest squad that’s No. 10 in the most recent CIF poll an underdog, but that just reveals the type of respect the Torrey Pines cagers have earned in so far in 2017-18.The Falcons were a perfect 10-0 in winning last season’s Avocado West crown and went on to a runner-up finish in the CIF Open Division. TP bolted out of the gate 15-2 this year and is currently No. 2 in the CIF San Diego Section. They’ve earned the favorite’s mantel but the Ravens, who were second to Torrey Pines last year at 7-3 and reached the semi-finals of the CIF Division II tourney, are right there if the top choice falters.
Here’s an update on both local squads and a brief overview of the rest of the league.
In 20 years as head coach at Torrey Pines, John Olive has seen it all. Enough to know when he’s got a team that’s the real deal. His 2017-18 Falcons may be just that.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised that we’ve accomplished what we have with only one returning starter — Finn Sullivan — and a pretty tough non-league schedule,” said Olive, a Philadelphia native who played and coached under legendary Rollie Massimino at Villanova . “I’m very impressed with how quickly our kids have picked up the system. We’re playing at a high level.”
The Falcons own victories over four teams — La Jolla Country Day, Poway (twice), Vista and San Marcos — who are currently ranked in the top 10 or receiving votes.
Torrey Pines motion offense starts with senior guard Finn Sullivan. The team’s second-leading scorer at just under 17 points a game, the 6-5 Sullivan also accounts for a team best 8.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per contest. “Finn does it all,” says Olive. “He has the ball in his hands a lot of the time, gets our post guys a lot of easy baskets by attracting multiple defenders and is always one of our best defenders. He’s playing the way a senior starter should play.”
Also transforming into leading roles as the season progresses are the 6-3 Pope twins — Bryce and Michael. Relentless seems a good word to describe the pair who are both quick, physical and aggressive as well as willing and able shooters. Bryce paces the Falcons netting 23 points an outing while Michael chips in with 13 markers a game. Wednesday night, Jan. 10, Bryce exploded for 36 points (on 17-of-22 shooting) and dished out nine assists against a good Poway squad.
“Bryce is a tough match-up because he can score in a variety of ways,” says Olive. “Post-up, threes, in transition, he’s not limited to just one way.” Although this year’s edition of Torrey Pines is averaging a healthy 72.8 points per game, Olive knows his club’s ultimate goals will likely rest on its performance at the other half of the court.
“We always hang our hats on defense,” emphasizes Olive. “Our No. 1 priorities are defense and rebounding. Right now, I would say we need to rebound better and be able to handle bigger, stronger guys and teams more effectively.”
Although a bit behind Olive in terms of tenure, Canyon Crest Head Coach Brian Baum is no rookie. The only head coach the Raven program has ever known, Baum is in the middle of his 14th season and his charges have put themselves in position to potentially make it one of the best ever.
Coming off a stellar 2016-17 campaign, Baum returned four-of-five starters, all seniors, and has 11 upperclassmen on his roster. High energy on both ends of the floor, the Ravens typically play a half court man defense and for the last several seasons have gone four-out-one-in on offense, penetrating, kicking out, playing off the inside game. Continuity of the skill set on the player side has resulted in competency and efficiency in both areas. That factor has also helped make this year’s transition to CIF’s Division I seamless.
“We’ve got a great core of guys back that have the same mentality —they like to work hard and want to be successful,” said Baum. “The step up to Division I hasn’t really involved any change at all.
“I’m pleased, I wouldn’t say satisfied with how we’ve played so far,” he added. “We’ve had a couple of slip ups, a few we’d like to take back, but for stretches, we’ve played really well. We’re in one of those stretches right now and hopefully that will maintain as we start league play.”
Baum has a pair of returning second team all-league selections in 6-5 post MJ Metz and standout guard Tyler Elsom. Metz, who plans to play baseball in college, is “flat out energy,” according to Baum. “He always gives full effort, works hard and is a leader on the floor.”
At 15 points per game, Elsom tops a group of four who average double figures. Baum says, “Tyler’s solid on both ends of the floor, has worked hard on his mid-range jumper and usually defends our opponent’s best guard.”
The other three perimeter players are point guard Sam Crespy, the Ravens’ primary ballhandler and another able marksman, 6-3 Aaron Acosta, who’s had a big year developmentally, and sophomore Frank Gelfman, a 6-2 sophomore who often finds himself guarding bigger foes in CCA’s guard-centric lineup.
Will the Ravens’ talent and experience be enough to overcome their dominant neighborhood rival? Time will tell but Baum doesn’t spend a lot of time losing sleep over Torrey Pines.
“It’s not really a rivalry but people expect that just because it’s right down the road,” said Baum. “They’re two different places. Torrey Pines is a traditional high school athletic powerhouse — a football team, cheerleaders, band, etc. CCA is a lot younger, started as a performing arts academy and has grown over the years. We keep getting better.” That doesn’t mean Baum & Co. plan on rolling over.
“We’re going to come out and compete,” says Baum. “We’ll meet them twice and give them our best shot in hopes of pulling out a ‘W.’”
This is not a two-team league. At La Costa Canyon, Coach Dave Cassaw, a four-time CIF winner, has the top end talent and depth to give any opponent fits. Carlsbad was well-regarded at the beginning of the year and Sage Creek and San Dieguito are both programs on the rise.
“Our goal is the win the league and I would be disappointed if we didn’t” says Olive matter-of-factly. “But there are some good teams that we’re going to have to beat — they’re not going to beat themselves.”
Baum echoes those sentiments.
“This is a tough league. Us, Torrey Pines and LCC all have a lot of historic success,” he said. “SDA has a great junior group that’s been playing together and Carlsbad has a nice mix of seniors and younger guys who are big and play good defense. Sage Creek is younger but improving.
“If you just show up and think you’re going to get out with a ‘W,’ it’s not going to happen.”