Post-pandemic results could point toward bright future for San Dieguito athletics

San Dieguito Academy Athletic Director Scott Jordon
San Dieguito Academy Athletic Director Scott Jordon
(Ken Grosse)

Being able to create opportunity when faced with trying circumstances is often regarded as a cornerstone trait of effective institutions. In laymen’s terms, taking a lemon and making lemonade.

Rarely has San Diego high school sports been served a fruit more bitter than that delivered by Covid-19. The nationwide pandemic that surged to the forefront in early 2020 is just now giving way to the pushback of science, technology and the human spirit.

In the interim, local prep athletes, along with their classmates, were forced to miss in-person schooling for more than a year while having landmark moments from prom to homecoming, concerts, plays and even graduation yanked away. They also had schedules cut short, if not fully rescinded, training routines diminished, championships canceled and a wave of uncertainty injected into lives previously notable for a high level of structure.

While some schools struggled mightily to respond and recover from the wrath of Covid, count San Dieguito Academy (SDA) among those that found a way to thrive.

Since competitive restrictions began being lifted in February of 2021, the approximately 650 Mustang student-athletes have flourished in a manner that has the school positioned to perhaps cause some re-adjustment to the outside image of SDA as a “non-athletic” institution in comparison to district colleagues Torrey Pines, La Costa Canyon and, to a lesser extent, Canyon Crest Academy.

“We did surprisingly well this year when sports started up after Covid,” said SDA Director of Athletics Scott Jordon. “I don’t think anybody at any of the schools really knew what to expect but given everything that had happened, I thought we put out a pretty good product overall and was pleased with how our teams performed.”

SDA's Arts & Humanities building.
SDA’s Arts & Humanities building.
(Ken Grosse)

The department’s unofficial slogan was “things aren’t going to be normal but we’re just happy to be playing again.” From Jordon’s perspective, both pieces of that mantra proved to be true.

“Our student-athletes had a real desire to be out there again, together with their teammates,” he said. “I would say most of our athletes came back and were immediately focused—they were glad to be getting out of their houses and were ready to play.

“And the coaches jumped in full force, seemingly just as excited as their athletes. It felt like there was more buy-in from both for just how special this was.” The results bore that out,

Boys cross country, girls lacrosse and baseball won league championships and 15 of SDA’s 19 varsity teams reached the CIF playoffs. The girls basketball team collected a CIF Championship while boys soccer, baseball and tennis reached the CIF finals before settling for section runner-up status. Boys basketball made it to the semi-finals

In Jordon’s opinion, those feats are part of an evolution that was picking up steam before the world was put on hold in early 2020.

“Even before Covid, I think our whole program was changing,” Jordan theorized. “Student-athletes have a choice of schools in our district and more and more they’re starting to see SDA as an attractive option. The school in general is attractive and kids are coming in bigger numbers.” San Dieguito’s current enrollment is 1,959, slightly above that of La Costa Canyon (1,947) while still less than Torrey Pines (2,444) and Canyon Crest (2,600).

Boys' Soccer Coach Mike Elenz-Martin
Boys’ Soccer Coach Mike Elenz-Martin
(Ken Grosse)

One of the newer members of the Mustang staff, boys soccer head coach Mike Elenz-Martin echoes many of Jordon’s thoughts. “I felt there were challenges when I came to SDA,” said Elenz-Martin, a respected club coach and former player and assistant coach at La Costa Canyon. “But I have always been around a winning mentality and knew that this program had great growth potential.

“We had a fantastic season but we’re just starting to scratch the surface—like our entire program, we still have a lot of growth in front of us. More and more kids are coming in playing at a high level.” In regards to getting through the pandemic and the upbeat future, Elenz-Martin says the driving force is at the top.

“I can see SDA is starting to have more of community feel, it’s more personal, like a family,” he continued. “I’ve been lucky to work under several outstanding administrators but I think Scott (Jordon) and his assistant Megan Thompson are two of the best we could have asked for in regard to getting us through the type of issues we faced this past year.

“They’re both very positive. Scott does a great job and is a really good communicator, which is key.”

Aubree Smithey, head coach of SDA's CIF title-winning girls' basketball team.
Aubree Smithey, head coach of SDA’s CIF title-winning girls’ basketball team.
(Ken Grosse)

Now in her 10th year with the SDA girls basketball program, the 2021 section crown was Head Coach Aubree Smithey’s second in the last three years. Her take, while more seasoned than that of Elenz-Martin, reflects many of the same ideas, particularly when it comes to the Jordon influence.

“I’ve been through a few and having an athletic director, like Scott, who’s been a consistent presence and is trying to help us grow, is invaluable,” said Smithey. “His objective is to put us in the right direction while keeping our culture in place—he understands both the potential and the history.

“It’s exciting to see what’s happening. It’s been a slow build, but we’ve been on this forward trajectory for several years and the last few, it’s just seemed to really take off. There are more kids on campus which benefits the athletic program. You can feel the energy.”

Q&A with Scott Jordon

Now entering his seventh year at the helm of the San Dieguito athletic program, 54-year-old San Elijo resident Scott Jordon will be looking to build on the success that’s taken place during his first six. In that period, the school has won six CIF championships, added two new varsity teams—swimming and girls’ water polo—hired four new head coaches, opened a top flight tennis facility and sent recent graduates to Division I schools in a mixture of sports including volleyball, track & field and soccer

In addition, Jordon has overseen the phase-in of a more year-round training cycle for most of the Mustang teams and been an advocate of “outside the lines” activities for both coaches and athletes, centered around topics like leadership, mental strength and other areas of personal development.

A graduate of Calabasas High School and Cal State Northridge, Jordon and his wife, Lissa, have an 11-year-old daughter, Paige, and a seven-year-old son, Cole. He spent time recently talking about an array of subjects including the progressive features of San Dieguito, some of the benefits derived from Covid-19 and his priorities heading into next year and beyond.

Q—You said you felt your program’s success coming out of Covid was due in part to what was happening before the pandemic occurred—can you elaborate on that?

JORDON—I think our program has changed and continues to change and you could see that process taking place in the months, even years, before Covid.

The word is out that San Dieguito has a legitimate sports program. Student-athletes are starting to recognize that and respond to it. In our district, they have a choice of schools and more are starting to see SDA as an attractive option. The school in general is attractive and athletics is part of that package.

Q—From an athletics vantage point, how would you compare San Dieguito with district rivals La Costa Canyon and Torrey Pines?

JORDON—You’re talking about two of the top athletic programs in the county so that’s always going to be difficult but I think we’ve shown that we can be competitive and there’s no doubt that San Dieguito is trending upward.

We have our own personality but I consider that a strength, a differentiator, if you will. While some might call LCC and Torrey sports schools, I would call SDA ‘an everything school.’ Whether it’s academics, sports or specialties like theater, band, debate or robotics, we want to excel. I don’t think you can pigeon-hole SDA. We’re proud of the variety and inclusiveness.

Q—You mentioned the attractiveness of both the SDA athletic program and the school as a whole to potential students. Can you expand on the athletic aspect of that equation?

JORDON—Two things stand out to me. First would be the simple fact that our coaches are getting out in the community, reaching out to middle schools and youth sports programs and promoting the attributes of San Dieguito as a potential place to continue their careers, in a more significant way than they ever have. Creating that increased awareness can’t be underestimated. A large number of our coaches are also involved with club programs for their sport which certainly helps.

The second comes from the fact that the talent pool in our district is substantial and a lot of the kids are starting to recognize San Dieguito as not only an appealing option but an option which may provide them with a better opportunity to make an immediate impact than some others might.

Q—What about the overall attractiveness of the school?

JORDON—San Dieguito has always been a high quality institution but absolutely continues to just get better. We have a shiny new building (the $23.5 m. Arts & Humanities complex) that is the centerpiece of an enhanced physical plant that includes a 19-room science and math center.

Our innovative 4x4 schedule, an approach that lets student take four 90-minute per day classes, continues to be a huge draw. It allows for completion of a year’s worth of work in a semester which in turn gives students the chance to explore a unique range of subjects. And when they get to that point, we have a wider variety of electives than many other schools, things like culinary arts, guitar-making, screenprinting…it’s really pretty amazing.

Q—With an expected return to a typical schedule and teaching format this fall, what will be some of your areas of focus?

JORDON—On the front burner will be just getting some normalcy back. I want our kids to enjoy being here, having a normal life again and a great athletic experience. We’re also excited to be adding girls’ sand volleyball to the sports we already offer. The CIF has recently added sand volleyball to the list of championships they will sponsor and given our location and level of community interest we feel it should be a sport where SDA will shine.

Q—In the last year-plus, most of the emphasis on Covid-19 was of the negative variety. Do you see any ongoing benefits being derived from that experience?

JORDON—I think there are several positive things that Covid is going to help generate for us. For one, I sense it will bring our coaching staff closer together. We have a largely “walk-on” (off-campus) group of coaches who in regular times might rarely cross paths. Especially during these hybrid seasons of the past winter and spring, they’ve been forced to work more directly on things like game/practice scheduling.

The fact that so many sports were being played in the same seasons, they were more frequently on campus at the same time and a cohesiveness and camaraderie developed organically and, in many instances, it was fun to see the mutual team support that ensued. In the past, the few times we were able to get everyone together the results were very positive. I see that environment only improving.

Along the same lines, for the first time, some of our athletes got the opportunity to play second sports and when you have that type of cross-pollination it can be beneficial for the whole program.

Q—In the future, would you like to see San Dieguito return to a league that would align it with other schools in the district?

JORDON—Absolutely. Playing against other schools in our district as part of a league would be fun. Given that the CIF is moving more-and-more towards use of power rankings to group schools, it would mean that we’re getting better and we’ve earned it. It’s something our kids and coaches aspire to as well—being in that world would show we’re competitive and having success.

Q—In the 1990s, San Dieguito dropped it’s football program. Any chance of that returning?

JORDON—I have nothing against football because it has a lot of great features but it doesn’t fit into our current culture so we haven’t given it a thought. SDA’s high school experience is a lot different than other schools and not having football is one of the reasons, in a good way.

Q—How long do you see yourself in your current position?

JORDON—I’m going into my seventh year and still loving the school, our staff, the student-athletes and community. My son, Cole, is in second grade right now. In a perfect world, I’d like to be here until he graduates and retire when he walks.

Q—What are some of the things you’d like to accomplish before that time arrives?

JORDON—The most important thing would be being able to hand off a successful program that has everything moving in the right direction to the person who moves into this position. That would obviously include outstanding teams across-the-board and maintaining a great experience for our student-athletes.

Beyond that, I would like to see us move forward with a number of facility improvements. We’re going to need to have a sand volleyball court for our newest team and there’s been lots of talk about a pool. Our gymnasium, which houses basketball and volleyball, may be our least up-to-date facility at the current time and baseball and softball are two other sports where upgrades might be needed.