La Costa Canyon, Mission Hills early choices in tight girls’ Avocado West basketball chase

Senior Haley Dumiak anchors LCC's inside game.
(Ken Grosse)

With the 2020 edition of the Avocado West girls’ basketball season fast approaching, it would not be far out of line to suggest that the ultimate order of finish might be awfully close to the way it looked last year.

That rank had first-year member Missions Hills at the top as the Grizzlies breezed through their debut with a 10-0 league record, two games clear of runner-up La Costa Canyon. Torrey Pines, San Marcos and Carlsbad were within two games of each other in the next grouping and winless Canyon Crest trailed the pack.

Veteran Coach Chris Kroesch, who took Mission Hills to a trio of CIF Open championships from 2015-17, was superb in pushing his team through the Avo West and on to the CIF Open title game where it lost to Cathedral Catholic. Meanwhile, first-year La Costa Canyon Head Coach Caitlin Eichlin did a similarly laudable job orchestrating her club’s rebound from a mid-season 4-8 stretch to the second place league finish, followed by the CIF D-I crown.

La Costa Canyon ‘owned’ the Avocado West to the tune of 10 consecutive championships (all but one outright) with an aggregate record of 92-2, before Mission Hills interrupted the dynasty. The Mavericks may have the talent, size and experience to re-establish their dominance in 2020. Eichlin didn’t hesitate when asked about her team’s capabilities.

“I would rank us No. 1 in the league, honestly” she said recently. “I think we’re better than we were a year ago and I know we’re going to go out and compete.”

Despite losing the bulk of last year’s starting lineup, count on the fact that Mission Hills will not be rolling over. As usual, Kroesch has run his team through a grueling slate of pre-season opponents, designed to accelerate its development.

“We’ve won seven straight league titles (six prior to moving to the Avo West) and players in our program have a certain expectation,” said the always positive Kroesch. “I think we’re going to win it again—we’re young, but the upside is there.”

It might not be wise to sleep on the rest of the league’s cast. Carlsbad, in its third year under dynamic Head Coach Donna Huhn, is coming off a CIF D-II title campaign, and has a healthy nucleus of its main contributors returning while San Marcos, which saw a promising 2019 season implode under a siege of injuries, is still something of a mystery, but shown signs in the pre-season that it could have the mettle to give even good teams trouble.

Morgan Overman, formerly an assistant at LCC, is now in charge at Torrey Pines. After an encouraging start, the Falcons hit a rough patch but seem to have righted things and do have plenty of experience in their starting five.

Canyon Crest, in the midst of a rebuild, labored to its current mark of 4-12. Last January, CCA came into league action on the heels of a 13-5 pre-season. They’ll be hoping that this year’s second half results trend in the opposite direction of their last.

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

Mission Hills standout Amber Schmidt.
(Ken Grosse)

Mission Hills (Chris Kroesch, 8-6)

The Grizzlies graduated eight seniors from last season’s section runner-up outfit but have enough players with big game know-how to be a threat to go back-to-back in the Avocado West. As usual, Mission will be aggressive on both ends of the floor, looking for the open three on offense and pressuring man-to-man up-and-down the court defensively.

Sophomores Amber Schmidt and Jessica Grant are noteworthy returners. The 6-2 Schmidt started 27 games as a freshman, mostly in the post. She gets out on the more perimeter now, where her excellent passing complements her scoring ability. Grant, 5-8, may be the most skilled player on the roster. She’s an elite shooter (79 threes last season) who can also blow by defenders.

Two others to watch are 5-11 sophomore Kennan Ka, a passionate player who can go to the hoop or hit a jump shot, and hard-working 5-7 junior Gigi Israel who Kroesch feels is his most improved player.

Kroesch says: “The Avo West is the best league we’ve been in. LCC has the veterans and has looked great so far but any team that is playing well can win a given game.

“Our potential is our strength. We have the pieces. Now we’ve just got to get them working together and keep improving. We’re definitely a contender in the Avocado West and a borderline CIF Open team. It may not look like it now, but if we make it that far, we’ll be dangerous.”

La Costa Canyon (Caitlin Eichlin, 11-3)

More comfortable in year two, Eichlin has initiated several changes specifically a more aggressive defense and a more creativity offensively. “Four of our starters are four-year varsity players,” noted Eichlin. “You can just see the chemistry on the floor and it keeps getting better. When you have that, it expands what you’re able to do.”

Two of the four-year vets are the feisty senior twin towers—5-11 Haley Dumiak and 6-0 Hannah Etheridge. Dumiak, a hoops-loving, basketball savvy, on-court communicator and leader, is the fourth of four sisters to play at LCC and a force under the basket. Etheridge, reliable as a mid-range shooter, can step out and hit from beyond the arc, and pairs with Dumiak to make a formidable pair on the glass.

The backcourt is manned by the sister duo of senior Katie McQuain and her sophomore sibling Megan. The former is like a coach on the court, good with the ball against pressure, expertly handling tempo for the Mavs, and a streaky three-point marksman. Her sister is also a solid catch-and-shoot threat and a go-to defender who’s usually matched up with the other team’s top guard.

Fast, super scrappy senior Lindsey Zientek is a starting forward who goes to the rim hard and is quick enough to find herself on both sides of a fast break. Sophomore Abby Hendricks, a good ball handler not afraid to take it in the paint, is a talented sixth man.

Eichlin says: “We are a threat on every level offensively and I feel like, top-to-bottom, we can adjust to whatever other teams throw at us. I would like to see us get a bit more consistent but the games we’ve lost were because of us—they were all games we could have won, we haven’t been out-played or outhustled.”

Beryl Dannis is one of Torrey Pines four senior co-captains.
(Ken Grosse)

Torrey Pines (Morgan Overman, 9-5)

Rookie head coach Overman saw her charges win their first five, then lose five straight before bouncing back to capture the next three. The Falcons have seven players back from last year’s third place Avocado West squad including a quartet of senior co-captains—Beryl Dannis, Izzy Ascencio, Cami Kangleon and Kaiya Dehaan—and junior Rory Hetrick.

The strong, athletic Dannis and high-motor Hetrick are both hybrid guards. Dannis handles much of the ballhandling and is an accurate mid-range shooter who doesn’t hesitate to venture into the paint. Hetrick is another aggressive type with a quick release who always seems to put herself in the middle of the action. Ascencio, a commanding presence under the basket, has the ability to be a factor the boards at both ends of the court.

Izzy Flores is a fourth-year starter for San Marcos.
(Ken Grosse)

San Marcos (Roger DiCarlo, 9-4)

Figured as a legitimate threat for the Avocado West title in its first year, San Marcos started 8-0 but was cut down by injuries, the most crucial to star Sarah Cloutier in the last of those eight wins. The Knights lost seven of their next eight before regrouping to make a nice late season drive to the CIF D-I championship game.

Cloutier and a band of talented seniors are gone and DiCarlo has had to adjust his frenetic run and gun offense and 90-ft. pressure D. “Because we have a lot of young kids who aren’t yet up to speed, we’ve had to limit the number of people we play and consequently slow things down until they get it,” said DiCarlo. “We used to average 60 shots per game and now we’re taking about 40.”

The San Marcos cupboard is not entirely bare, though. Senior Izzy Flores and juniors Makenna Tootikian and Megan Roberts who all missed significant portions of 2018-19 with injuries, provide a sturdy foundation. Flores, a four-year varsity starter, has evolved from a role player to a scorer and is averaging 15 points per game, mostly on treys. Six-two post player Tootikian sat out all but a few games last year and is registering six points and seven rebounds a contest in her comeback. The still-improving 6-1 Roberts is averaging seven and seven with 26 assists. Sophomore assist leader Lana Dang and junior JV import Bianca Berron are also solid.

DiCarlo says: “We can play defensively with anybody but the question is can we score enough points to beat a good team like Mission Hills or La Costa Canyon. We’ve won some games we probably shouldn’t have won and our zone has caused people trouble. In this league, I could see us finishing anywhere from second to last.”

Sophomore point guard Alexa Mikeska is an offensive catalyst for Carlsbad.
(Ken Grosse)

Carlsbad (Donna Huhn, 12-3)

The Lancers lose talented big Ari Pagan, leaving a void in the middle, but her exit has also meant opening up the offense. Huhn calls it “trying to find a new identity” and fans can expect to see Carlsbad running, gunning and shooting a lot of threes.

After an impressive unveiling in her first year, sophomore point guard Alexa Mikeska is at the controls of the high-octane Carlsbad offense. One of the section leaders in steals, Huhn says, “she sees the floor very well and is a much better distributor and leader,” which goes along with her ability to shoot threes and get to the basket.

Mikeska has a variety of weapons to feed, one being freshman sharpshooter Madison Huhn, the 5-7 daughter of the head coach, who has the green light to shoot from anywhere and has already set a new school record for three-pointers in a season.

Junior Kylie Ronan, a quick up-and-down the court defensive stopper, had to handle a lot of the point guard responsibilities before Mikeska’s emergence but can now concentrate more on her strengths. Five-foot-11 senior Kristin Young’s biggest asset is her leadership but she’s also demonstrated a knack for getting critical buckets and rebounds as well as doing the little things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.

Junior Renza Miller, a 6-0 transfer from Canyon Crest steps in for Pagan and gives the Lancers some inside presence. Huhn is pressing her to be “selfish,” about utilizing her size, power and physicality on a more regular basis. Mikeska’s twin sister, Ava, is the first person off the bench and would be a starter on most teams.

Huhn says: “We don’t have a lot of height. That’s a reality, so we’re always stressing the battle inside and boxing out from 1-to-5. On the other hand, we’re smart, have great basketball IQ and will be very aggressive defensively—we want to control the game from the jump.”

Guard Elaine Wang is the only returning starter at Canyon Crest.
(Ken Grosse)

Canyon Crest (Scott Tucker, 4-12)

With just one starter in place from a year ago and only one player over 5-8 on the roster Canyon Crest will face an uphill battle from the opening tip in Avo West play.

Five-two senior point guard Elaine Wang, a glue player averaging double figures and over seven assists a game, is the solitary returning starter. Juniors Skye Vanderlinden, Sophia Zilberman and Sonia Iusupova and sophomore Margaret Watts, who average 5-foot-6, round out the starting quintet.

Watts is on the small side but is a proficient shooter who handles the ball well and seems like the type of player CCA can build around. Vanderlinden and Zilberman are more typical of the Ravens’ make-up. The latter, still a work in progress, is strong with good size and a non-stop engine but continuing to learn the nuances of the sport. The 5-10 Vanderlinden is also relatively new to the game but brings welcome height to the lineup.

Tucker says: “We know what kind of challenge the Avocado West presents and try to approach it by measuring ourselves outside of strictly wins and losses. Things like trying to make each defensive possession a one-and-done, averaging a point per possession when we have the ball, keeping our turnovers below a designated level or simply out-working the other team. Regardless of the final record, our girls have the opportunity to learn a lot and make this year a valuable experience.”

First week Avocado West girls’ 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