San Dieguito Academy aims to step up sports programs with new athletic director


Competing in one of the most talent-rich sports environments in the state — if not the entire nation — presents formidable challenges, especially for an arts-oriented high school.

Getting high school and middle school teachers up to speed on the newly implemented Common Core Standards Initiative is no easy job either.

Justin Conn has been tasked with both.

The longtime San Dieguito Academy track and field coach and English teacher earlier this year was named the school’s athletic director. He was also tapped by the San Dieguito Union High School District to help administer its curriculum and instruction program.

Both positions are part-time.

Conn will stay on as SDA’s track and field coach, and as a cross country assistant coach, positions he’s held for eight years. He will no longer teach English at SDA.

“It’s just a different world,” he said. “It’s strange not to have students every day.”

Conn’s two new gigs are similar in ways that might not be readily apparent.

“I would say that in both cases, I’m working as a coach,” he said.

“I’m working as a coach with teachers and providing support ideas and encouragement and anything I can do to help them be at their best, in the same way that I’m working as a coach for our athletics program.

“I’m coaching our coaches, trying to increase the amount of resources that I have available to them, which is the same thing that I’m doing with the teachers, so I would say in that way it’s similar.”

Conn takes over an athletic director position at SDA that was unfilled for several years during the economic downturn, with assistant principals given the daunting responsibility of administering the school’s athletic program, hiring coaches, and building relationships with San Diego Section administrators and athletic directors at other schools.

Conn’s hire reflects the growing interest in athletics at the academically oriented campus in recent years.

“Our school is growing, and the type of kids that are coming here is changing a little bit,” Conn said. “We’re getting more kids who are interested in athletics.”

That interest has translated into some impressive results.

The Mustangs have boasted strong boys and girls volleyball programs for years. The boys team earlier this year became the school’s first team in any sport to win a San Diego Section Division I championship. The girls team has produced some of the area’s top talent, including scholarship athletes Sophie Gracey (University of New Orleans) and Amanda Colla (University of San Diego).

Other programs that have enjoyed success include the boys soccer team, which earlier this year advanced to the San Diego Section Division I finals.

The boys and girls tennis teams have been areas of strength too. The girls team has won two consecutive Avocado League titles, going unbeaten both seasons.

The recent hiring of Jason Stewart to coach the boys basketball team has generated some buzz for a perennially down program. The baseball team was — until last season — coached by former major leaguer Jack McDowell.

Conn said 130 athletes went out for track and field last season, nearly doubling the 70 athletes that went out for the sport the previous year.

“There’s a lot of energy around lots of different places,” he said.

Facility upgrades funded by Proposition A figure to fuel more energy at SDA.

The school recently completed upgrades to its track facility, installing new field turf, building new bleachers, and bringing in state-of-the-art track equipment. Construction of a new gym and weight room is expected to be completed within a few years. And new tennis courts will be open for business in January.

Conn, 33, ran track for a year at Dodge City (Kan.) Community College, fulfilling a dream he had in high school of competing on the collegiate level. He completed his teaching bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Cal State San Marcos before coming to SDA.

Conn’s wife teaches elementary school locally. They have two children: a daughter, 3, and a son, 4.

“I feel like the work that I’m doing is very much community-oriented,” Conn said. “I felt that way when I’m teaching, but I especially feel that way now in this job where I’m doing things to make the community better.

“It’s nice to live where you work and get to be a part of what’s happening here.”