Defending champ Torrey Pines favorite as boys open Avocado West hoops season Jan. 14

Brandon Angel is a senior leader for defending champion Torrey Pines.
(Ken Grosse)

You can have your CIF Championships, State Tournaments and high caliber invitational tournaments—all are aspirations and dreams of most young athletes and coaches. But when it comes to high school basketball, in its traditional construct, there might not be a purer form of competition than the league title chase—where the stakes are high, the tables are even and resolution of all sorts is required.

In the case of the six-team Avocado West, one of, if not the, best league in San Diego, that breaks down to 10 games per school, home and away against each of five opponents over a 31-day span. The equal opportunity format tests not only talent, skill, preparation, determination and coaching but also checks boxes like depth, stamina and resilience as would-be champions deal with issues such as injuries, health, hostile environments and other outside factors on a weekly basis.

Having played an average of 15 games leading up to the association’s Jan. 14 tip-off, all teams have logged a nearly two-month stretch of instruction, chemistry-building, adjustments and fine-tuning.

Defending champion Torrey Pines, also the reigning CIF Open Division kingpin, owns a 29-1 ledger over the past three league seasons and undoubtedly stands out as the favorite. Sporting a shiny 12-4 mark against a sturdy pre-season schedule, Coach John Olive’s hoopsters are ranked No. 4 in the section.

All of the Falcons’ laurels will be sidebars when the 10-game league gauntlet commences. Although many teams still have sizeable question marks, the Avo West once again looks like a formidable lineup with three teams in the San Diego section Top 10 and a cast of elite coaches (four have won CIF championships and another has put his squad in the CIF Open Division bracket the past two seasons).

Here’s a quick look at the six teams that will be vying for the new decade’s first Avocado West boys’ basketball banner (listed in order of 2019 finish with head coach and record as of Jan. 5 in parentheses):

Torrey Pines (John Olive, 12-4)

Many people were positing that 2020 could be the year Torrey Pines would be vulnerable to league challengers, having lost four starters (three now playing college basketball) from last year’s championship outfit. But in typical program fashion, Olive has surrounded Stanford-bound senior Brandon Angel with a host of new faces and things just keep humming along.

Angel, although now facing the defensive attention that comes with being the No. 1 option, is doing his part, averaging almost 20 points per night along with nine rebounds and three assists, all while assuming a predictably expanded leadership role. He’s definitely in the SD Player of the Year conversation.

Penciled in as the starting point guard a year ago, junior Nick Herrmann is running the offense after sitting out his sophomore year battling and overcoming bone cancer in his leg. He’s back now, averaging in double figures and providing plenty of grit on both ends of the floor. “It’s a miracle,” said Olive. “I can’t believe he’s able to play basketball at all and now he’s the heart and soul of our team.”

The most prominent of the new starters is San Marcos transfer Chris Howell about whom Olive says, “I absolutely love his game.” A versatile 6-3 guard, the lanky Howell can handle the ball, get to the rim, block shots as well as facilitate. A slew of role player types like Nate Witte, Diego Campisano, Mattias Clotfelter, Cam Klein and 6-9 Otto Landrum have all had their moments.

Olive says: “I’m pretty pleased with how we’ve progressed. We’ve lost to some high profile teams and beaten some high profile teams. Were definitely becoming more cohesive. Along with Carlsbad and San Marcos, were probably the favorites in the Avocado West but we’re all going to have our hands full every night.”

Guard Jailen Nelson is key to Carlsbad's league title hopes.
(Ken Grosse)

Carlsbad (Sam Eshelman, 11-4)

The Lancers handed Torrey Pines its only Avocado West loss in 2019 and culminated their season with a CIF Division II championship. With a strong veteran core back plus some talented reinforcements, fourth-year coach Eshelman’s crew appears to be Torrey Pines’ biggest threat.

Skilled, physical and athletic, ninth-ranked (San Diego) Carlsbad is long on defense and should be a load on the boards. The two best returnees are both Nelsons. Senior point guard Jailen Nelson is a three-level scorer who Eshelman says, “is one of the best in San Diego with the ball in his hands.” Six-foot-six junior Caleb Nelson, has a solid all-around game, really came into his own last winter and is getting D-I looks. While Jailen is scorching the nets at a 26 ppg clip and leading the team in rebounding, Caleb has yet to touch the court, still sidelined by a broken clavicle suffered at the tail end of the Lancers’ football season (which concluded in the CIF Open Division title game). The latter’s return looms large to the team’s hopes.

Eshelman’s guard-oriented lineup includes 5-9 sophomore “glue guy” Toby Harris, senior Sam Sitarz, elevated from an “energy off the bench” role as a junior and 6-1 slasher/defender Sam Hasegawa who also plays baseball. Carson Frincke and Kyle Vassau, a first team all-league football performer, are splitting inside duties.

Supplying depth will be a trio of transfers, 6-10 junior Kai Burdick from El Camino and juniors 6-5 Kaspar Kasradze and 6-4 Brady Canfield, both January-eligible wings who played last year at Sage Creek.

Eshelman says: “At full strength, we should be able to compete with anyone in town—we’ve just struggled a bit getting guys on the floor. The league’s really good, every night it will be a war. Our schedule should make us battle-tested at the end of the year but getting healthy is really more important.”

San Marcos (Dante Carey, 10-2)

Carey loses four of the top five scorers from last year’s club but the Knights look to be sneaky good with explosive sophomore guard Devon Arlington leading the way. San Marcos, pegged at No. 10 in the most recent county poll, ran off an eight-game winning streak before taking a loss to La Jolla Country Day, which was ranked first nationally at the time. With no seniors in the starting lineup, lack of experience may be a factor.

As a freshman starter, the 6-3 Arlington posted sound statistics but he’s appreciably raised the numbers (21.8 ppg/5.4 rpg/5.5 apg) this second time around. The summer rise of six-foot-three soph “work horse” Max McCall from the junior varsity has been a surprise. Playing at a high level, he’s now the Lancers’ top rebounder while also racking up 21 assists and 21 steals.

Aggressive Jeric Lovgren and athletic LCC transfer Carson Cook (7 ppg/7 rpg), both juniors, are another pair who have moved from under the radar into the starting lineup. Juniors Zakkaiah Knowles (6-8) and Christian Littlejohn (6-6) are sharing time in the post, the latter stepping in after Knowles was injured. Senior Kasey Clouet supplies shooting and rebounding off the bench.

In deference to their relative youth and length, the Knights, ordinarily a high pressure, in-your-face, man-to-man unit are relying primarily on zone defense this season.

Carey says: “If we’re going to succeed at a high level, defense will need to be a strength. I think we’re doing a good job there. Overall, I’m most concerned about our consistency. When we’re on our game, we can beat the best teams, when we’re not, we could lose to a lot of teams. The Avocado West is one of the toughest leagues in San Diego but I’m not sure it’s going to be as clear cut as a lot of people think. We could be right up at the top, but honestly, we could be fourth or fifth—it’s going to be interesting.”

Junior Brandon Perry of La Costa Canyon.
(Ken Grosse)

La Costa Canyon (Dave Cassaw, 10-6)

Coming off a .500 season in which it felt like his team never truly hit its stride, veteran Cassaw seems to have his gritty, hustling 2019-20 bunch pointed in the right direction. Hard-working junior guard Brandon Perry, a 6-2 slasher who can hit threes in bunches and connect in the clutch, is one of the centerpieces. Team-oriented Bonita Vista transfer Ray Square has fit in seamlessly as a table setting point guard and Cassaw says he’s not sure he’s ever seen “a player who’s improved as much in a single year as senior Tommy Griffitts.” The 6-6 Griffits has gone from not playing a single minute as a junior to being a key contributor with his shooting, passing and ballhandling.

A pair of seniors, mobile, long-armed 6-5 Trevor Gonzales who doubles as a wide receiver on the Mav football team, and Charlie Schmitz round out the probable starting lineup. The 6-5 Schmitz has an inside-outside game but missed chunks of the last two years with health issues. Cassaw is high on his team’s depth which will include junior sharpshooter Jack Norrbohm, 6-2 offensive-minded freshman Ty Hendler and 6-2 wing John Hapgood, a transfer who started as a freshman at La Jolla Country Day.

Cassaw says: “I’ve told this team more times than any other how much I love how they compete—how they get after it. Even when we’ve been in games where we go t down and knew we weren’t going to win, they were diving for loose balls and playing their tails off. I feel good about our pre-season. We had plenty of challenges but I’m not sure what can really prepare you for what you’ll see in the Avocado West. That said, I think we can surprise some people.”

Senior Jon Pearson plays a big role at CCA.
(Ken Grosse)

Canyon Crest (Brian Baum, 7-9)

Two years ago, Baum guided a senior-laden team to a second place finish and the brink of a CIF Open Division berth. Graduation left last year’s unit on the edge of the league cellar and the 16th-year head man says the experience has been a motivator.

“Our guys took last year’s struggles to heart in the off-season,” said Baum. “We’re bigger, stronger and more physical now on both ends of the court. I think we’ll be a lot more aggressive and effective. We’re also a little deeper.”

Six-three senior Jon Pearson is exhibit A. After an up-and-down performance as a junior, Pearson’s off-season workouts have made him a multi-purpose 18-pt. per game scorer and offensive cornerstone. Senior Frank Gelman is a four-year starter, CCA’s best defender and a valuable shooting option. Three-point ace Justin Lamb was the Ravens’ top scorer at 13 per outing last season and is on pace to surpass his 82 treys. Luke Stratton, the squad’s best rebounder at 6-3 and inside defender/”garbage guy” Luke Levine (6-2) fill out the starting five. Sixth man Adam Knees is easing back into the lineup from an injury and Baum has a pair of lanky 6-4 reserves on his bench with senior Luke Atkinson and junior Vinay Agarwal.

Baum says: “We’ve never had a legitimate 25-26 ppg guy and always been best relying on a balanced attack. I think we’re moving in that direction with this team. Looking at the league, it’s brutal. Right now we have three teams in most people’s Top 10 with Mission Hills and LCC right around there too. If we’re able to get to 5-5, that would be an accomplishment—could do better, could do worse.”

Mission Hills (Curtis Hofmeister, 12-3)

Last season was Mission Hills’ first in the Avocado West. Sixteenth-year Head Coach Curtis Hofmeister picked a bad time to have a roster with no seniors and a starting lineup that included three sophomores and a freshman. The Grizzlies’ one-win Avo West campaign was not unexpected.

Junior Robert Ligayon was the leading scorer and the lone upperclassman among the first five. Fast, athletic and a shooter who canned 111 from behind the arc as a junior, Ligayon is back as Mission Hills’ only senior for what Hofmeister expects will be an improved Grizzly squad.

He’ll have three juniors and a sophomore surrounding him this time in a guard-centric system that Hofmeister hopes will be able to pressure the ball full court and play almost exclusively man-to-man defense while running a motion-based, five-out offense.

Five-eight Austin Schultz is the point guard. His coach describes him as “built like a fire hydrant” but also calls him “tough as nails, a good defender and ball handler.” Another tough, chip-on-the-shoulder-type is 5-10 Jared Hansen, a mid-to-long range shooting wing who was set for JV duty a year ago but worked his way into the varsity starting lineup. Fifteen-year-old Justin White, the soph starter, took some lumps starting every game as a freshman but is now a steady rebounder who has adapted to the speed of the game. MH gets some size from 6-5 Diego Czarnoswksi, a co-captain with Ligayon. His good footwork, smarts and improved strength help him fit in at the league level.

Hofmeister says: “It was definitely a battle last year but I felt we were getting closer and closer to where we needed to be as the season progressed. This year, we’ll have some kids who have been through it. My No. 1 concern is rebounding. We got killed there last year. This is a big league and we need to be more physical and blocking out better.”

First Week Avocado West Boys’ Basketball Schedule

Tuesday, Jan. 14:

Canyon Crest @ San Marcos

Torrey Pines @ Carlsbad

Mission Hills @ La Costa Canyon

Friday, Jan. 17:

La Costa Canyon @ Canyon Crest

San Marcos @ Carlsbad

Mission Hills @ Torrey Pines