ENCINITAS — Since arriving at San Dieguito Academy in 2014, head coach Jason Stewart has quietly been building a new culture for the varsity boys basketball program.
But it’s not quiet anymore.
After finishing their regular season with a 16-7 overall record and a 7-1 record in the Avocado League, the Mustangs clinched the school’s first outright league championship since 1965.
Since arriving, Stewart quickly learned of the long-ago history of success and made it a goal to live up to the past while building something new.
“It’s always been my dream and vision, once I learned the history of SDA, to try to create an atmosphere where alumni want to come back,” Stewart said.
The Mustangs, the top seed in the CIF San Diego Section Division III tournament, opened the playoffs on Wednesday night at home with an 83-58 victory against Mount Miguel High (6-22) from Spring Valley.
After making it to the semifinal round of the CIF tournament a year ago, the goal this year is to make it further than they did in 2021. But the team also now must face the new challenge of no longer being the underdog.
“Historically in the playoffs, we travel because we haven’t been the one seed,” Stewart said. “Now you’re at home and it’s a different ballgame.”
The Mustangs didn’t look past their first-round opponent, and Stewart has impressed the importance of remaining humble through the success of his team.
“How do I deal with this ego that’s inside of me to try to impress all these other people. Those are the roads we’re going to have to cross,” Stewart said. “I’m cautiously optimistic about our mental state. Not our physical state because physically I think we can do anything. I think we can give any Division II a run for their money.”
The team is led by a strong core of senior leaders, from twins James and John Hapgood to Owen Isachsen and Jackson Garner. The leadership both on and off the court has led to a strong fellowship among the entire team.
San Dieguito is banking on that connection to lead them deep into the playoffs.
“Basketball as a game is crazy, it’s chaos,” James Hapgood told The Coast News. “So we come together as a family.
That same mindset has helped the San Dieguito boys’ JV squad also find success this season with a 16-6 record and a league championship of its own.
For Stewart, it’s all about making San Dieguito a destination for students who want to find success athletically as well as academically.
“What it means for the future, hopefully, is there are other young folks that want to become Mustangs. What it means is the bar is set a little bit higher,” Stewart said. “I hope what it means for the future is it changes the perception in the community of what SDA is from an athletic standpoint.”
The Mustangs (17-7) next host Ramona High in the quarterfinal round of the CIF Division III playoffs at 7 p.m. on Saturday.