ENCINITAS — After a historic season leading the San Dieguito Academy boys basketball team to clinch its first CIF championship in nearly six decades, Mustangs head coach Jason Stewart was recently named CIF Coach of the Year.
Stewart said he was playing pickup basketball with some friends on Sunday when he checked his phone to find out the news reported in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
“I see all these texts coming in and they’re saying ‘Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations,'” Stewart said. “I mean I just don’t have the words to describe this, it’s unbelievable, it’s unfathomable, it’s an extremely high honor.”
The award for Stewart came just several weeks after the San Dieguito Academy won the San Diego CIF Section Division III boys title for the first time in nearly six decades, defeating the Scripps Ranch Falcons 57-46 last month to win the championship.
Finishing 20-8 on the year, the Mustangs won the Avocado League outright, the first since 1965. San Dieguito Academy was eventually eliminated on March 3 in the state tournament by Viewpoint High School, falling 64-59.
According to Stewart, the team’s attitude, core values and culture of excellence contributed to the historic run more than anything else — all of which have been steadily trending upward over the past eight years.
“It was a phenomenal year, not without ups and challenges,” Stewart told The Coast News. “It’s been a bit of a dream season from the standpoint that we’ve really had a great group of guys. In a team sport, everyone has to sacrifice for success. There’s a lot of talent out there but at the end of the day, that’s not what makes the team’s heartbeat. It’s guys buying into what I’m preaching.”
Stewart has coached the Mustangs since 2014. Before that, he had a range of various coaching jobs including running two club programs in Tucson Arizona and briefly working as a volunteer coach for the Solana Beach Cats before he was recruited to San Dieguito.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Stewart played basketball all throughout his youth and was a walk-on at the University of Arizona where he played all four years of college.
“Being born in LA and playing ball in LA, that’s relevant today because there’s a certain level of tenacity that I grew up with that I expect from all of my players,” Stewart said.
While the Mustangs squad was loaded with tremendous talent this season, Stewart’s culture of tenacity and a team-first mindset led to the team’s success more than anything else, said Scott Jordan, athletic director at San Dieguito Academy.
“(Stewart’s) got integrity that few people have,” Jordan said. “He puts the boys first and he leads by example, by integrity. He puts that culture at the forefront of everything they do and he lives by those rules himself. Each of the kids on the team talks about those values, they live by them and respect them — (those values) mean something to them.
“He’s brought a family atmosphere, this team loves each other, they pull for each other, they have a great time. Jason is always talking about that family atmosphere and I think this team has bought into that, and you can see that on and off the court.”
While ecstatic about receiving the award, Stewart emphasized the critical role played by the school’s athletics program and other team staff in making the historic season possible.
“I’m really humbled by this but I got to give credit to my staff, to coach Willie Jackson, my associate head coach, to all the people behind the scenes, Athletic Director Scott Jordan, as well as the staff at SDA,” Stewart said.
The Mustangs coach also gave particular credit to a host of other staff members, including school administrators Jodie Sladavic and Steve Isachsen, Vice Principal Katie Bendix and Principal Adam Camacho.
“I think it’s important to remember that we’re not a private school — we don’t have the facilities, the equipment of a Bishops or an Augustine,” Stewart said. “I have to work with whoever comes in through the front door, and ya, it’s nice to be acknowledged for all the work you’re doing in the dark when nobody’s paying attention. I’m just grateful that our work here hasn’t gone unnoticed by this committee.”
James Hapgood, a senior guard on the Mustangs’ historic team, said this season “summed up who [Stewart] is as a coach and the perseverance it takes to get to this point.”
“He doesn’t accept anything other than excellence,” Hapgood said. “We have the seven rules we live by as a team, that’s everything. If you go out of line at any level, if you mess those things up, you got to be accountable for it. Living those rules for me has been key for me being a man and a grown-up.”
Hapgood said Stewart also successfully fostered a unique comradery among teammates.
“He has a way of bringing people together where you’re from or whatever you do, it allows you to work together, it makes the environment very family-like so that people can relate to it,” Hapgood said.
Owen Isachsen, a senior Mustangs guard, said Stewart has built something at San Dieguito Academy that goes beyond basketball, teaching all of the players life lessons to carry with them beyond the court.
“(Stewart) made sure to push us in the right direction not only as basketball players but developing into good men, making sure we’re making the right decisions past this year into whatever we do,” Isachsen said. “He’s a family man and this team is all about family, making sure that we have what we need and being that great coach to lead us forward.”
The team’s success this year was reflective of the kind of community that San Dieguito is, helping foster a legacy that Stewart says he hopes will continue long after this season.
“The most important thing is that you gotta love what you do and the people you serve, you gotta bring a vision,” Stewart said. “I’ve been coaching for 20-plus years now and I love all the kids I serve. I love Encinitas, quite frankly, I love this community.
“We’re seeing people from the community involved in this [program] and to me that’s everything, I’m glad that we’re able to attain that and keep that interest going. Hopefully, more people realize that SDA is a place where you can make accomplishments in athletics and academics while still maintaining your personality and that this is an awesome place to be. So I hope that more athletes see that and choose that.”