Defending CIF champ Torrey Pines favorites in Avocado West girls soccer

Torrey Pines senior Tatum Lenain (#10).
(Ken Grosse)

Call it the “big two” and the “chase pack” when the Avocado West League girls’ soccer schedule kicks off Tuesday (Jan. 14) night.

The Avocado West has a history of being a two-team race at the top and for the past three years, those teams have been Carlsbad and Torrey Pines. This year pencils out to be more of the same. As the two-time league champion, reigning CIF Open titleholder and owner of a 9-2 non-conference ledger, Carlsbad deserves the nod as pre-season favorite. But Torrey Pines already owns a December tournament victory over the Lancers and is ranked No. 2 in the section while Carlsbad is No. 4.

Any of those numbers could reverse quickly, however, as the two sides face-off in Del Mar on the opening night of league action. One big question is on the Carlsbad bench as newcomer Katie Tarrant, a former professional player and Carlsbad’s freshman coach last season, is now the head coach, replacing CIF Coach of the Year Dean Balent. So far, so good.

Behind the dynamic duo it’s going to be a dogfight. None of the other four appear to have enough firepower to finish higher than third over the course of a 10-game schedule but all are capable of beating just about anybody on the right night.

Besides Tarrant, there are officially two other rookie coaches in the league although one, Canyon Crest’s Matt Favor, who coached the Ravens in 2018-19 with an interim title, has been awarded the role permanently. Seattle native Ryan Morissey takes over at La Costa Canyon.

Here’s a quick look at the six teams that will be vying for the new decade’s first Avocado West girls’ soccer banner (listed in order of 2019 finish with head coach and record as of Jan. 10 in parentheses):

Offensive standouts Lexi Wright and Taylor Wells have had plenty of reasons to smile at Carlsbad
(Ken Grosse)

Carlsbad (Katie Tarrant, 9-2)

Tarrant received the “gift of goals” when she assumed the helm at Carlsbad. Returning forwards Lexi Wright and Taylor Wells are likely the most electric set of goal scorers in the county. Wright, a junior UCLA commit who was CIF Player of the Year as a sophomore, has tallied 24 goals already and senior Wells, the perfect running mate, has chipped in with 12. As a team, the Lancers are averaging nearly four per game and come into Avo West play on a five-game winning streak during which they have racked up 21 markers.

Tarrant knows that regardless the talents of her preeminent players, that alone will not be enough to reach the top of the mountain again. “Obviously, we have some big names but we are running with a lighter squad this year (19 players total) so we will be relying on every single one of them to do a job for us. We also have a group of five returning seniors who are a great source of leadership.”

It’s not like the talent begins and ends with Wright and Wells. Eleven veterans of the 2019 CIF champs are back and form the nucleus of the new club. Senior Marisa Bubnis is a defensive-minded midfielder who can be an extremely effective offensive weapon when needed (she leads the squad with 10 assists) and is a central cog on Carlsbad’s set pieces.

Tarrant says: “Unity and togetherness are probably our strength. I think they have already proven to be a very hard-working team that will run through a brick wall for each other. The success of the program definitely puts a target on our backs but I do believe the ladies and staff are more than up for the challenge to repeat. Hopefully, they can call on the experience of last year’s success.”

Torrey Pines (Martyn Hansford, 6-1-3)

The Falcons, who won 2016 and 2017 CIF Open championships under Hansford before suffering first round departures the past two years, are hungry to get back to the pinnacle of both the league and the section. Despite losing 12 seniors, Torrey Pines is well-equipped to resist Carlsbad’s attempt for a three-peat in the Avocado West. Their only loss to date has been to No. 1-ranked Cathedral Catholic.

“I like the group, we’ve got a large core that’s heavily invested,” said Hansford. “Their approach and togetherness, the team culture, is what’s most pleasing.”

The Falcons sport a balanced roster that includes a solid, physical defensive unit that has surrendered just seven goals to this poinit, different types of creative midfielders and some pace, strength and finishing ability up front.

There are also several standout individuals starting with Georgetown-bound senior Tatum Lenain, one of the county’s leading players. An inventive attacking midfielder who is instrumental to the way Torrey approaches things offensively, Lenain has not only scored eight goals but has impressed Hansford with her hard-nosed two-way play.

The heart of the midfield is another senior, Jordan Rowell, an all-around contributor whose aggressiveness and competitiveness sets the tone defensively. Senior Talia Nakata returns and is now a leader on the backline while holding center midfielder Sydney Sanchez, one more fourth-year player, is rounding into top form coming back from an injury. A versatile defender who can also score goals, Hansford is hoping she elevate into a player on the level of Lenain, Rowell and Nakata.

Hansford says: “Overall, we’re still a work in progress but we’re certainly going to give it a go—the Avocado West League championship is one of our focal goals every year. As the defending Avo West champions, Carlsbad has a good chance to repeat but I wouldn’t be surprised if several teams have a shot at the title near the end.”

Canyon Crest senior forward Sofia Rodgers
(Ken Grosse)

Canyon Crest (Matt Favor, 4-5-2)

Canyon Crest used its third place Avocado West finish as a springboard for a CIF Open Division berth last winter and is hoping its 14 returners and a tough non-conference slate will lead to another strong league showing. After a rough patch early in the schedule, Favor’s crew has won four-in-a-row by a combined margin of 10-2.

“It feels like we’re still getting to know each other, the players and coaches,” said Favor recently. “We’ve had a lot of players hurt and sick which has been a big issue.”

The Ravens, always a hardy defensive team, figure to be improved on the offensive end. The gritty starting front three of seniors Sofia Rodgers and Cleo Kennedy and junior Maggie Gillcrist may not be scoring at the clip of Carlsbad but should get CCA on the scoreboard with regularity.

The quick Rodgers, a four-year starter, is the team’s top scorer and can also track back and hold the ball. Kennedy has speed and creates plenty of chances for herself and others while Gillcrist works the wings and is good on the ball.

Led by athletic senior Sarah Kowack and multi-sport junior Jamie Ma, the midfield is a strength for the Ravens. Favor likes the impact that fast-paced, two-footed freshman Ashley Hayase has made already.

The backline is still a bit of a concern. Graduation has made this a youthful group and the unexpected loss of starting outside back Elle Ballard to academy play has left a void. Two sophomores, last year’s back-up Peyton Johnson and Jamison Ruff, have shared time in goal and Favor is hoping one or the other will emerge sooner than later.

Favor says: “The league is going to be very good, Carlsbad and Torrey Pines are tough. We’re not afraid of anybody but we know we’re also not going to be able to surprise anybody. Our goal is to win the league title. We may not win it but we want to be in the mix.”

Senior Lizzy Teran is LCC's leading goal scorer
(Ken Grosse)

La Costa Canyon (Ryan Morissey, 5-2-1)

Don’t look now, but former San Diego power La Costa Canyon is 5-2-1 while sliding into the No. 8 hole in the current rankings. Under Seattle transplant Morrissey, who coached the Carlsbad JVs a year ago, the Mavericks have some potent offensive tools, experience in the defensive third and an assertive edge to their persona. Look for them as a candidate to trend upward.

Senior Lizzy Teran is a super-quick, athletic forward who likes scoring goals and has nine of them already in 2019-20. She also exemplifies LCC’s “don’t back down” attitude. Morissey calls Lorena Villa, a senior midfielder/forward combo, “an x-factor” because she’s someone who plays under the radar but makes dangerous things happen going to goal.

Junior center midfielder Courtney Hilliard has a lethal blend of size, speed, soccer IQ and toughness that is still evolving. The defense is solid with junior returning starters Paige Hays and Kaitlyn Farley manning the left and right back spots respectively and senior Gracie Welke adding leadership. Hard-working, strong-communicating senior goalkeeper Alexa Gonzalez makes that position a plus.

Morissey says: “This job was interesting to me because the team has a lot of room to improve and I liked the opportunity to put my spin on what’s already a super strong athletic culture at LCC. This is a good little team. I think we’ll surprise some people who might think of us as a walkover game. That’s motivation. I tell them we’re as good as anybody and hold the keys to our own destiny.”

San Marcos (Daniel McKell, 4-3-2)

San Marcos may have finished fifth in the Avocado West last season but the Knights were a team that lost just two league matches (beaten only by Torrey Pines and Carlsbad). They were eliminated in the Division I CIF Playoffs by eventual champ Steele Canyon meaning don’t overlook this club as the season progresses.

McKell had a big personnel turnover and his roster includes just four seniors which means potentially foretells significant advances in the next month-plus. He considers midfield an area of strength. The junior twosome of Katy King and Kayla Fortenberry is formidable. King, bound for San Jose State, is an athletic-type who plays both sides of the game, is good in the air, trapping and hitting the long ball. Her partner, Fortenberry, is also athletic, a good decisionmaker and ball handler. She was the team’s MVP last year. Adding support are senior Jazmine Sanchez and freshman Ava Bynes.

Junior forward Olivia Aschbrenner, a strong, imposing 5-10, shoots with both feet and is a ready target up front. The backline is entirely new but freshman Ella Rodgers has risen to the occasion. Possessing speed and good timing as a tackler, she was promoted from the JV team as a freshman.

McKell says: “With a relatively new team, we’re still trying to figure out our identity. We have speed and soccer sense but our best combinations are still up in the air. It’s really a privilege to battle with the kind of teams we see in the Avocado West. Judging from where we are today, mid-table would probably be a good place to start if you were ranking us, but we’re hoping to crack the top two.”

First week Avocado West League girls’ soccer schedule:

Tuesday, Jan. 14

San Marcos @ Canyon Crest

Carlsbad @ Torrey Pines

La Costa Canyon @ Mission Hills

Thursday, Jan. 16

Canyon Crest @ La Costa Canyon

Carlsbad @ San Marcos

Torrey Pines @ Mission Hills