No home for the weak—that’s been an apropos nickname for the Avocado West boys’ soccer league over the past several years. Three of its six teams have won CIF Open championships since the section created the new elite level in 2014 (including the last two years) and the other three schools have all won a non-Open CIF title in the last three seasons.
In 2019, Avocado West teams secured three of the eight CIF Open berths after snagging four the previous season. But scanning the most recent San Diego rankings you’ll find just two Avocado West teams posted in the top 10 with no others in the vicinity. Is the San Diego prep power base shifting? Probably too soon to tell but it’s a storyline that will bear watching.
Several teams are continuing to sort through growing pains and roster shuffling so things could change significantly in the course of the five-week Avo West calendar. When the 10-game league season kicks off Tuesday, Jan. 14, it’s probably still safe to say that league affiliates showing up without their “A-game,” shouldn’t expect to leave with a W.
Despite the first-class competition, there’s little question about the pre-season favorite’s role. As the two-time defending league champion with a combined 14-0-6 ledger over the past two regular season Avocado West campaigns, Torrey Pines looms as the team to beat. The Falcons were also the 2019 CIF Open Division banner winners and are positioned at No. 1 in the current rankings.
Canyon Crest should be close behind while perennial powers La Costa Canyon and San Marcos, who met in the 2018 CIF Open Division final, are at least partially rebuilding and a bit of a puzzle at this point.
New coaches have taken over at Mission Hills and Carlsbad, the fifth and sixth place finishers last winter, and both look capable of making strides over the next two months.
A predominant narrative of the non-conference slate has been the players that haven’t been available due to injuries, sickness or other factors. With that in mind, many of the early results may not be realistic indicators of where a team will be next week or next month. Let the games begin.
Here’s a quick look at the six teams that will be vying for the new decade’s first Avocado West boys’ soccer banner (listed in order of 2019 finish with head coach and record as of Jan. 7 in parentheses):
Torrey Pines (Andy Hargreaves, 7-2-1)
With the number of players Hargreaves has lost to graduation over the last two years, it seems impossible that the Falcons could be solid fixtures at the peak of the league table, but there they are. Again.
And the bad news for their opponents is that they could get much better in about a month. Their impressive start has been done largely with three key contributors on the sidelines. Senior center midfielder Cody Black, talented sophomore forward Charlie Kosakoff and senior center back Owen Underwood are expected back in early February after missing all or most of the season-to-date with injuries.
“When you add those three to Nick Bello, Jake Kosakoff and Jose Salgado,” says Hargreaves, “we’ll be really solid right down the middle of the field.”
Calm and collected goalkeeper Bello, a three-year starter at Torrey, makes things look easy while anchoring the back end of the defense. A former field player, he has decent size, gets up well and has polished technique. Hargreaves says, “Nick is so solid and comfortable. His presence creates a high level of confidence for our young defenders.”
Called “one of the most effective players I’ve seen,” by Hargreaves, Jake Kosakoff is equally adept with either foot and has versatility custom-made for his attacking midfielder slot. His high-level awareness and understanding make others around him better and could put him in Player of the Year conversation if his team finishes well.
The steady midfield play senior Ben Antoniades not only solidifies the central area but helps free up Kosakoff for offensive forays. Good on the ball and cleaning things up, junior Louis Molyneux has been a pleasant surprise and made the Falcon midfield even stronger.
After leading the team in scoring as a sophomore, Salgado sat out last season but has come back to provide a reliable figure on the front end. When Charlie Kosakoff returns, the two should provide a difficult offensive package for foes to deal with.
Hargreaves says: “We have a good mixture of good, young payers with a group of seniors that are solid mentally and physically. Our biggest concern is just keeping people healthy. We’ve already had more people out this year than all of last season. The league is going to be as challenging as ever but it is our expectation that we should be right there playing for the top spot.”
Canyon Crest (Tom Lockhart, 4-2-4)
The Ravens are a team that seems to annually fly a bit under the radar before emerging in the mix of the picture come post-season time. Lockhart’s squad has reached the CIF Open bracket the past two seasons, won the Division I crown in 2017 and is currently ranked seventh overall in San Diego.
Preliminary outcomes, like a mid-December victory over No. 5 San Pasqual, would indicate Canyon Crest may be up to its old tricks again in 2020. The defense, with seniors Jesse Yu and Ben Anderson manning the center back posts, has confidence, composure and shown a knack for being able to pass its way out of tight situations.
Senior midfielders Sage Bolaris and Jack Farfel and junior forward Rafael Panero Ren, all returners, are central to an offense that is a fast, slick-passing group and maintains possession well. The Ravens have found the net 16 times in their first 10 games but Lockhart believes that could (should?) be better.
“Finishing our opportunities is a concern,” he maintained. “Several games could have changed significantly if we had been able to do that better.”
The roster has a number of promising underclassmen including the sophomore trio of midfielders Jackson Gibbons and William Jao and defender Ethan Chang.
Lockhart says: “We have eight seniors but we’re still pretty young, experience-wise. We’ve been an Open team the last couple of years and that will be our goal again. We’re pretty deep, the chemistry has been really good and everyone is on the same page. I’m pleased with our progress so far.”
La Costa Canyon (Craig Dean, 0-5-3)
The Mavericks may be the Avo West’s most difficult crew to value. A consistent force in prep soccer from day one, they graduated a whopping 20 seniors last June, have just one starter back, came into the new year without a win and seemingly looking for answers.
While not necessarily predicting his charges will ultimately finish on the top rung of the league ladder, Dean has a pretty plausible response. “We’ve had a ton of injuries and other health issues,” he said matter-of-factly. “We’ve played multiple games with half of the starting lineup and even had to pull out of a tournament.”
It may be premature to write LCC off just yet. But even Dean admits adversaries may see an atypical version of the Mavericks. “In the past, it’s kind of been put our foot down and play in a style that will make the other team bend to our will,” he said. “Against half of the league, we’ll probably be playing that typical possession-based style but we’ll likely get more defensive against better teams.”
The foundation begins in the net. The lone returning first stringer is senior goalkeeper Garrett Sevison who’s been a constant on the goal line most of the past two seasons. At 5-11, he’s a sturdy shot stopper and hard work has made him better in the air, giving him more command in the box.
High motor attacking midfielder Case Wagstaff is technically sound, tactically aware and seems to be all over the field. The senior is the team leader in goals and assists. Another pair of seniors, Aidan Cooper and Kolby Schiefer, line up alongside Wagstaff, making the midfield a strength for LCC. Cooper relies on vision and defensive smarts in the center of the field and Schiefer, a welcome newcomer who’s calm on the ball and possesses a soft touch, mans the holding mid site.
Up front, Dean awaits the return of junior Jonas Witkowski, the leading scorer on the freshman team and the same last year for the JV. He’s been out since the second game.
Dean says: “When we’re all together and healthy, we’ll be fine. We’ve had trouble getting our full lineup on the field, but I believe we’re going to be competitive against a very strong bunch of league teams. Our effort is there, these kids all have a good work ethic, want to win and want to play good soccer.”
San Marcos (Matt Hidalgo, 4-6-1)
Sixth-year head man Hidalgo has another young team with 12 players back but just three starters. From his perspective, it’s all about improvement. “We’re young, not that much experience, but there’s a willingness to keep getting better each game,” says Hidalgo. “We’ve played one of the toughest schedules in San Diego, so we’ve struggled, but kept on working. We’ll be better in the long run and every moment out there is vital to our future.”
Defense is where the Knights have the most experience. Six-foot-three junior Zach McClellan is the center back and after playing every minute as a freshman brings speed, strength and intensity to the back line.
Two other returning starters, senior Carlos Rivera and junior Carlos Ortega are assets in the midfield along with junior Christian Smith. Fast with high energy, good ball skills and savvy, Smith is the leading goal and points man for San Marcos. Mercurial striker Parker Gamboa is a freshman with a big shot and great potential.
Hidalgo says: “If we keep growing, we can get some wins and ties from the teams in the league’s top group. Finishing in the top three would be a great accomplishment but it’s something that’s within our reach. We’ve been to at least the D-I semi-finals in each of the last five years and I would love to have these guys have the chance to experience something like that.”
Mission Hills (Phil Shuttleworth, 3-2-1)
England native and local club coach Phil Shuttleworth stepped in as head coach just weeks prior to the start of the season but seems to have weathered the last-minute arrival and is upbeat about the direction of the program.
“All the pieces to the puzzle are here,” said Shuttleworth. “The question is can we make them fit together quickly enough to be competitive in a condensed high school season. With me being new, there have been a lot of moving parts. It’s a learning process for everybody.”
The new head man can rely on nine seniors, several who call the defensive side of the field home and help make that unit a likely strength for the Grizzlies. One is Ethan Ibarra, just 5-7 but an agile goalkeeper whose footwork, distribution and communication skills are high quality. Center back and captain Brian Ojeda is “an unpolished diamond” whose physical skills, technical awareness and passion could eventually get him to a higher level. Fellow senior Michaelangelo Hart can move between center and left back.
Cameron Rosa, a junior with excellent vision and passing talent, pulled out of his club’s academy program to be the holding center midfielder for Mission Hills.
Up front, the Grizzlies are younger and less experienced but the junior duo of Ivan Cisneros and Seth Moore are building blocks. Cisneros brings good size and competitiveness while Moore has rapidly climbed the ranks as a forward in the last two seasons after being an academy-level goalkeeper.
Shuttleworth says: “I think a middle of the pack ranking for us would be fair. On our day, we’ll give anybody a run. The challenge is to consistently be at our best. If we finish above .500 in league that would give us something to build on.”
Carlsbad (Sean Gurley, 1-4-4)
Former LCC assistant and Carlsbad HS grad Gurley takes over as head coach from 26-year veteran Jeff Riccitelli who retired with more than 300 victories and the 2014 CIF Open Championship on his resume. Gurley’s first order of business will be to spearhead a rebound from an uncharacteristic 2019 performance that left the Lancers on the bottom section of the standings.
The squad Gurley inherits doesn’t have great size. It will attempt to be a possession-based, technical-oriented group, playing out of the back, trying to utilize its speed in the wide areas, find gaps and create opportunities. There are 11 returners (4 starters) at his disposal.
He’s got a pair of skilled midfielders in senior Oscar Mejia and junior Oliver Padilla, both playmakers who can also defend. “Oscar is great at handling defensive duties and covers an incredible amount of ground from box-to-box,” says Gurley. “And Oliver is very clean on the ball and has good range with his passing.”
Six-foot-one sophomore goalkeeper Bryan Castaneda was pulled up from the junior varsity team last season and worked his way into a starting role. In front of him, the defense, with three senior starters, has done a good job of being staunch against the run of play but has been hurt by set pieces.
Offensively, striker Angel Aquino and winger Joao Coehlo, both seniors have two goals each. Gurley has analyzed his side’s overall play as “very good between the ‘18s’ but not ruthless enough in defending our goal or scoring.” The transfer of all-around junior midfielder Joe Totoris to University City hurt.
Gurley says: “In this league we have great programs and great coaches, you have to compete every single second of every single game. I want our players to have an overall great experience and by the end of the year find an identity—once we do that, we’re going to stick to our strengths and build on who we are. Jeff Riccitelli and his father established a great legacy here and I’m just going to do the best to live up to what they’ve done.”
First Week Avocado West boys soccer schedule:
Tuesday, Jan. 14
Canyon Crest @ San Marcos
Torrey Pines @ Carlsbad
Mission Hills @ La Costa Canyon
Thursday, Jan. 16
La Costa Canyon @ Canyon Crest
San Marcos @ Carlsbad