Last season, the La Costa Canyon Mavericks stunned St. Augustine to claim the CIF San Diego Section’s inaugural open division title, one of three teams in North County to claim a sectional crown.
As the calendar turns to December, the Mavericks will look to defend its open division crown, and teams across North County start the season with newfound title hopes – or perhaps just hopes of an improved showing over last year.
The Coast News previews the season, including five major topics that loom large as play begins this week, as well as The Coast News preseason Top 10 teams and players for the North County Region.
1. Can anyone beat La Costa Canyon?
La Costa Canyon boasts a starting lineup that saw three players sign Division 1 letters of intent on Signing Day, unheard of in North County. The trio – forward Travis Fuller, point guard Tommy McCarthy and swingman Brady Twombly – give the Mavericks a decided advantage over its competition in the Avocado West League. Fuller, a versatile 6-foot-9 “stretch forward,” is headed to Brown of the Ivy League; McCarthy, a 6-foot point guard, will compete against Fuller at Ivy League power Harvard, while Twmbly, an athletic 6-foot-6 wing, will play his college basketball at Northern Arizona University. With league stalwart El Camino in a transition year after longtime head coach Ray Johnson departed to take a coaching position at Loyola Marymount University, the Mavericks could face the least resistance it has in several years during league play. That doesn’t mean that The Mavericks won’t be challenged during its nonleague schedule, as already seen in its first game of the season, when the Mavericks needed a fourth-quarter comeback to defeat La Habra Sonora. The Mavs will likely face other potential stumbling blocks during early season matchups against San Clemente and the yet-to-be-announced Under Armour Holiday Classic field, which is traditionally stiff. The Mavs must also find a way to soften the blow of the transfer of Patrick Fisher, the team’s defensive ace, who moved on to Vermont Academy before the start of school.
2. New coaches abound
A tumultuous offseason saw a record amount of turnover in head coaching positions across the county, and North County was not immune to the defections. Seven schools had to replace coaches: El Camino, Army Navy, Carlsbad, Ramona, Pacific Ridge, Rancho Bernardo and San Dieguito Academy all have new faces at the helms of their programs. Of the group, El Camino head coach Tom Tarantino, Rancho Bernardo coach Marc Basehore and Army Navy coach John Maffucci probably inherited the most talent. Tarantino, who departed Army Navy, has a group that includes a talented frontcourt duo of Sam Bockman and Quen Meadows, solid blocks to build around as he incorporates his system. Maffucci, who is the academy’s longtime athletic director, has one of the top young prospects in the West Coast in sophomore forward Richard Polanco, a senior leader in Caleb Morris, and, in January, will receive an injection of talent by way of 6-foot-7 forward Aziz Seck, who was a dominant force for the Warriors during fall league. Rancho Bernardo might be a surprise, considering that former coach James Choe won 16 games the past two seasons and graduated several key contributors, but Basehore has a talented trio of backcourt players, including sophomore Jamison “JJ” Overton, junior Beni Mokili and junior Lamarr “LJ” Crouch, a transfer from Cathedral Catholic High School. If their showing against Cathedral in the first game of the season – a closer-than-the-score-indicates 64-50 loss against one of the section’s top teams – is any indication, the Broncos could be a sleeper in Division 3.
3. Key departures impact top teams
As mentioned earlier, La Costa Canyon lost arguably the section’s top on-ball defender in 6-foot-4 guard Patrick Fisher, who transferred to Vermont Academy and reclassified to the class of 2016. The Mavericks will try to replace his output by committee, with junior forward Jack McNulty – a transfer from Wilsonville, OR – and senior guard Matt Hartman getting the first crack. But the Mavericks are not the only team with key losses due to graduation or transfer. Torrey Pines, which advanced to the state playoffs last season, was stunned when star junior guard Brandon Cyrus, originally from Canada, transferred to La Lumiere High School in Indiana. Cyrus was a unique player for John Olive, as no one on the current roster can replicate his game-changing athleticism and versatility. But don’t weep for Olive too much- the Falcons still have a talented roster, which includes fringe Division 1 basketball prospect Dominic Hovasse, who could be poised to have a breakout season during his senior campaign. Also, look for 6-foot-5 senior forward Marek Sullivan to be one of the surprise storylines of the basketball season. The soft-spoken wing is one of the best players in San Diego you’ve never heard of –but could become a household name by season’s end.
4. Freshmen, transfers continue to have impact
A number of factors over recent years – the increasing number of youth playing on competitive travel basketball teams, parents starting their children later in school or having their kids repeat grades to gain athletic advantages – have resulted in freshmen basketball players having a much quicker impact at the high school level than in previous seasons. Last year, Orange Glen saw four freshmen – Deven and Michael Diaz, Gabriel Macias and Trevor Owens – contribute to the team’s Division 4 title, the school’s first basketball title in 15 years. This year is no different, as several freshmen are expected to play key roles on their varsity teams. At the top of the list in North County is Vista point guard Taurus Samuels, who had an impressive fall campaign and could earn a starting role early in his career for head coach Charlie Mercado. Warren Washington, a versatile 6-foot-7 forward, will also have a major role on an Escondido team that is one of the top teams in a stacked Division 1. El Camino will break in freshman guard Jalen Flanagan, a 6-foot defensive ace, Santa Fe Christian could play two solid freshmen in Matt Stevenson and Demetrious Washington, and Poway freshman Zach Reiter, a 6-foot-1 bruiser of a guard, could play a key role on a Titans team that lost many of its role players to graduation.
In addition, another recent phenomena – the high-school transfer – has also played a significant role in the high-school scene. Fueled by a change a few years ago that allows basketball players to compete with their new steams after sitting out 30 days – rather than a full season – transfers have become a staple to the hoops landscape. This year’s biggest transfers hail south of State Highway 56, but Cathedral Catholic has one of the top transfers in 6-foot-5 junior utility guard Austin Beech from Vista Murrieta. San Marcos brings in the tallest transfer in 6-foot-8 center Joah Robinett, who will be an immediate interior presence for the Knights. In addition, Joey LaGrua, Calvin Christian’s leading scorer the past three seasons, joins Orange Glen in January and only bolsters a team that will be a major force in Division 3. Aziz Seck, who transferred to Army Navy from the East Coast, could be a game changer in the rugged Coastal League. Jack McNulty, who transferred from Wilsonville, a strong Oregon program, could have a key role for the Mavericks in their quest to repeat as Open Division champions.
5. Championship aspirations
The Mavericks are not the only North County team with legitimate title hopes. Torrey Pines hopes to knock off the Mavericks in the same Open Division, a season removed from falling five point short of a berth in the championship game. Three North County teams – Escondido, San Marcos and Army Navy – all are strong contenders in a Division 1 that boasts no fewer than six teams with a shot at winning the title. Mt Carmel, which has taken its lumps during the early season, could be a dark horse in Division 2. Orange Glen – which will suit up Lagrua in January – is considered by many to be the favorite in Division 3, despite suffering an early season loss to Santana. Rancho Bernardo also has a solid chance in Division 3 due to its stellar guard play and scrappy defense.
North County Preseason Top 10
1. La Costa Canyon- Three division 1-bound seniors in the lineup. Enough said.
2. Torrey Pines- John Olive returns a solid roster headlined by senior Dominic Hovasse
3. San Marcos- McWilliams is poised to rule the Avo East league for the next two seasons
4. Escondido- The trio of Kabellis, Hentley and Cummins is as strong as you’ll see in North County.
5. Army Navy- Polanco, Seck and Morris are a formidable frontcourt.
6. El Camino- Wildcats will need breakout year from Sean Birk to complement frontcourt.
7. Mission Hills- No big names, but expect smothering defense and timely scoring from the Grizzlies.
8. Poway- Soffer is one of the most improved players on the West Coast, but look out for F Matt Beeler.
9. Mt Carmel- Intriguing team has a lot of talent on paper. Must come together on court.
10. Vista- Under-the-radar team has toughness and now the shooting to match.
Honorable mention: Westview, Santa Fe Christian, Orange Glen, Rancho Bernardo, Carlsbad, Fallbrook, Oceanside
Top 10 players
1. Tommy McCarthy, Sr. PG, La Costa Canyon – The Harvard commit has become the leader of the Mavericks, hits big shots and is a steely competitor.
2. Johnny McWilliams, Jr. SG, San Marcos – Arguably North County’s top prospect, McWilliams is off to the races scoring 29 and 22 his first two games of the season.
3. Travis Fuller, Sr. F, La Costa Canyon- The versatile Brown-bound commit shoots it from three and has become a respectable low-post threat.
4. Dalton Soffer, Sr. SG, Poway – The Seton Hall-bound sniper is the best jump shooter in California.
5. Brady Twombly, Sr. F, La Costa Canyon- The rugged Northern Arizona-bound forward will dunk on you in a heartbeat, plays with a high motor.
6. Richard Polanco, So. F, Army-Navy – The Dominican native is a point forward type whose skills will attract high-major colleges when it is all said and done.
7. Khy Kabellis, Sr. PG, Escondido – Slithery lead guard enters his senior year with an offer from Army and interest from several Division 1 programs.
8. Dominic Hovasse, Sr. G, Torrey Pines- Crafty scoring guard had a breakout summer campaign, and will lead Falcons in scoring.
9. Sam Bockman, Sr. PF, El Camino – High-motor forward is one of the top rebounders and athletes in the area.
10. Caleb Morris, Sr. SG, Army-Navy- Shoots it with the best of them, Morris is coveted by a number of Division 2 program.
T-10- Jack Langborg, Sr. SG, Santa Fe Christian – Athletic jump shooter has courted interest from Division 1 to NAIA programs. Will need a big senior year to cash in on that interest.
Honorable mention: Quen Meadows, Sr. G/F, El Camino; Will Christmas, Sr. PG, Oceanside; Michael Diaz, So. PG, Orange Glen, Mikey Howell, Jr. PG, San Marcos; Marcus Hentley, Jr. G, Escondido; Jason Simmrin, Jr. F, San Marcos; Keegan Cummins, Jr. C, Escondido; Burke Twyman, Jr. F, Mission Vista; Reid Johnson, Jr. PF, Catherdal Catholic; Cameron Moore, Jr. PG, Cathedral Catholic, Jordan Henry, Sr. SG, Vista; Kurtis Pilbin, Sr. G/F Fallbrook; Timmy Saunders, Sr. G, Torrey Pines; Jack Beach, Sr. SG, Torrey Pines; Jamison Overton, So. G, Rancho Bernardo.
Avo West: La Costa Canyon
Avo East: San Marcos
Palomar: Torrey Pines
Coastal: Foothills Christian (Army Navy T-2nd)
Valley: Orange Glen
Citrus: Calvary Christian (Vista)
Pacific: Tri-City Christian