Mustang soccer culture on the rise under Michael Elenz-Martin

SDA Boys Soccer Coach Michael Elenz-Martin has the Mustangs moving in the right direction.
SDA Boys Soccer Coach Michael Elenz-Martin has the Mustangs moving in the right direction.
(Ken Grosse)

Fourth-year San Dieguito Academy (SDA) boys soccer coach Michael Elenz-Martin can speak fluently on virtually any aspect of his sport. But no matter where a soccer conversation starts, you can be reasonably certain the 38-year-old Elenz-Martin will eventually steer it back to his favorite topic—team culture.

As in, “my number one objective is creating a positive culture” or “I want my players to be part of a learning, team-oriented culture.” To be sure, training, tactics, strategies and the like surrounding the game have a significant place in Elenz-Martin’s approach but nothing supersedes establishing a group mentality that prioritizes a unity of attitude.

Senior Liam Urich (#14)
Senior Liam Urich (#14)
(Ken Grosse)

“Coaching is definitely a passion and at the core is creating team players, not necessarily superstars” said Elenz-Martin, who was a soccer standout at La Costa Canyon before walking on at San Diego State and eventually transferring to Chico State where he was team captain and a 2007 business/marketing graduate. “We’re looking for a ‘we, not I’ selflessness.

“I love being able to help kids grow up, achieve their goals and teach them to learn from their setbacks.

My style is to give my players a lot of confidence. I try to let them know that mistakes are OK, you build on them.”

Senior Reif Andreason celebrates a goal against Eastlake.
Senior Reif Andreason celebrates a goal against Eastlake.
(Ken Grosse)

Unquestionably, Elenz-Martin’s philosophy has worked well at SDA. He inherited a program that had gone 15-36-15 in the three seasons prior to his arrival, finishing fifth each year in league play. Following a transitional campaign in 2019, the Mustangs have posted a combined 28-13-7 mark the past two seasons and after a pair of third place results in the Avocado East League, stepped up to the more competitive North Coastal League in the winter of 2021 and placed second.

Under Elenz-Martin, San Dieguito reached the CIF Division II quarterfinals in year one, made it to the semi-finals in 2020 and were defeated by Valhalla in the championship game last winter. Despite having to replace the skill and leadership of 15 graduated seniors, including CIF Player of the Year Ethan Davis, this year’s Mustangs are an impressive 7-1-2.

The 2021-22 club, spearheaded by a formidable junior class, is well-rounded and adaptable in a way that makes it hard to pin down with specific descriptions. Depending on the match-ups, from game-to-game, a large chunk of the roster could be playing any one of several positions.

The Mustangs have scored 20 goals while surrendering just nine but their leading goal scorers, senior Ryan Shiels and junior Jackson D’Alessandro, have just three goals apiece and 13 different players have found the back of the net.

Juniors Nicholas Quanbeck and Soren Groessel stand out in a versatile midfield, the latter’s game sense and distribution skills have put him atop the team’s assist chart. Anchoring the back-end is the talented goalkeeping duo of senior Lucas Cassaza and junior Lucas Beltran who split duties after being part of a three-way time share in the net a year ago.

Soren Groessl is SDA's assist leader.
Soren Groessl is SDA’s assist leader.
(Ken Grosse)

Overall, Elenz-Martin has been pleased by what he’s seen so far but experienced enough to understand the biggest challenges lie ahead.

“We’re off to a great start but things happen—vacations, injuries, illness, school,” he said. “So there’s a long way to go. It’s all about league for us and that doesn’t even start until the second week in January.

“The decisions we’ve made and work we’ve put in early have resulted in where we are today but our guys know they have to stay committed.”

When the Mustangs are in system, hitting on all cylinders, one can expect to see a strong, possession-centric side, setting the tempo and controlling games on both ends of the field.

“Decision-making in the speed of play is key,” said Elenz-Martin. “If we lose possession, we want to win it back in 10 seconds. There’s a real focus on re-starts and transition.”

Elenz-Martin, who is also currently the college and high school coordinator for the Encinitas Express Soccer Club, got started in coaching shortly after concluding his playing career, which included stints with the semi-pro Chico Rooks and Sacramento Knights of the MPSL following college.

He got his first job as the youngest coach for the local Rancho Santa Fe Attack club program, staying there for three years before accepting a coaching role with Encinitas Express in 2011. While with the Express, he served concurrently as part of the staff at La Costa Canyon, progressing from freshman coach to two years with the JV squad and another two years as an assistant for the varsity team. The hours are long and include plenty of off-the-field responsibilities but Elenz-Martin doesn’t consider coaching work.

“Coaching is my peace, my happy place,” he said. “It’s just a part of me.

“I see coaching as something I could do for the rest of my professional career. I love where I am right now. We’ve got great kids, a great coaching staff and invested alumni. I’m all in at SDA. Somewhere down the line, I could see myself coaching at the college level if the timing and opportunity were right but we’ve got a lot to accomplish where we are.”

He identifies Encinitas Express Director of Coaching Andy Hargreaves (also the head boys coach of perennial San Diego power Torrey Pines High School) and veteran La Costa Canyon Head Coach Craig Dean among his mentors on the soccer front.

“Andy’s a magician when it comes to game management and tactics,” said Elenz-Martin. “He’s a fantastic communicator, has a good sense of humor and relates to each player.

“Craig is extremely organized, also a good communicator and in the six years with him I was so thankful for the way he supports younger coaches and really emphasizes training and developing them.

“I’ve tried to incorporate as much as I can from both of them. They helped put me on a pathway to success.”

When it comes to the non-athletic parts of his make-up, Elenz-Martin draws inspiration from his family. It’s an athletic-oriented group. His father, Rick, was a collegiate swimmer. His two brothers, Sean (older) and Nick (younger) also played soccer at LCC with Nick continuing collegiately at Brown. His sister, Katherine, was a multi-sport star at LCC, earning a full-ride scholarship for field hockey at Michigan State. Yet, it’s his mother, Patti, that may have influenced his philosophy and personality the most.

After suffering a stroke when Elenz-Martin was 10, Patti Elenz-Martin recovered, earned her masters at Penn State, a PhD in education (psychological and career counseling) from Northern Illinois and had a distinguished 30-plus-year career as a counselor at San Diego State and Cal State San Marcos where she was instrumental in starting the university’s first counseling department. She passed away in October.

“Resilience and positivity, those are things I admired so much about my mom,” said Elenz-Martin. “When you walk into a room and someone’s smiling, that always makes an impression—that’s part of what made her special.

“When I get down, I try to remember that. She respected everybody like family and was well-connected. That’s the kind of character I’d like to instill in our guys.”

Now well on the way to having a program that’s solidly entrenched at SDA, what’s on the horizon for Elenz-Martin & Co.? The Mustangs steady improvement has brought a once improbable objective into the realm of possibility.

“This program has never been in the CIF Open Division Championship field,” noted Elenz-Martin. “It’s an absolute goal this year. We’ve had the kids play a lot of high level December games to prepare for league and hope it can lead to a Coastal League title.

“All of that is intended to position ourselves to be considered for one of the eight Open Division berths.” If that were to happen, the long range vision at SDA laid out in Elenz-Martin’s mind expects it to be the start of a trend.

“We’re on an upward trajectory soccer-wise and with kids having the opportunity to choose between schools in the district, there is so much to sell to prospective student-athletes at San Dieguito Academy. The main thing is that SDA is a highly academic school with great teachers and a lot of scholastic flexibility.

“On the soccer side, our primary goal is to prepare each of our young men for his future, as a player and a person. The combo deal at SDA—academics and athletics—is what really gives us such a bright future. Academics is a priority. Soccer is a privilege but it also offers a potentially valuable moment in time for these kids.

“There is so much you can learn as a member of a team. Part of what we want to provide here is experience with relationship-building, inter-personal communication, accountability and other things they’re going to need in the real world.

“Given that, when it comes to soccer, we do want to have a winning mentality at the highest level—set goals and get results. We don’t want to be the second or third best team.”

If he’s got the culture right, he may not have to worry about that. Stay tuned.