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The Lancer Way - Carlsbad tops the FTH Preseason Top 10

When the season ended last spring, barring the miraculous, Montgomery, which returned six of its top 7 players from an Open Division finals berth, was a lock for the preseason No. 1 spot for the 2023-24 season.

The miraculous happened by way of Interstate 5 with the transfer of Jael Martin, a 6-8 hybrid forward who is just scratching the surface of his ability, from Pacifica Christian in Santa Monica to Carlsbad, a team that lost to the Aztecs in the Open semifinals.

Then, the floodgates opened: four more players with serious varsity credentials checked into Carlsbad, including a couple of household names in North County, San Marcos' Deuce Sims and El Camino's Euan Davis.

Paired with a returning cast that includes player of the year candidate Jake Hall and all-CIF selection Tony Duckett, the Lancers finished their summer with a Section 7 championship in Arizona, a 3-1 finish at the Boys Cali Live event in Irvine and beat the Aztecs in their lone head-to-head matchup at the SDSU team camp in early June.

Carlsbad opens as the No. 1 ranked team in my preseason rankings.

But they have company near the top.

The Aztecs aren't going anywhere, proven by their strong summer which included back-to-back championship game appearances at Boys California Live and Section 7, only losing to Windward and Archbishop Mitty in June. St. Augustine returns all-CIF selections Lolo Rudolph and Ian De La Rosa and are coming off a two-year stretch wehre they haven't lost to a San Diego opponent. Mission Bay returns almost its entire team from a D1 finals appearance and recently added a transfer guard that only enhances their credentials. And Torrey Pines returns a deep and improved group that will battle with Carlsbad for a league crown.

Here's my preseason Top 10:

1. Carlsbad

Last Season: 24-7, 9-1 Palomar League (Open Division Semifinals)

Key Returners: Jake Hall, 6-3 Jr. G; Tony Duckett, 6-4 Sr. G; Tristan Guzman, 5-11 Sr. G; Jordan Garner, 5-9 Jr. G; Trenton Mehl, 6-0 So. G; Briggs Young, 6-3 So. G; Jett Kenady, 6-1 Jr. G

Key Additions: Jael “JJ” Martin, 6-8 Sr. F; Euan Davis, 6-1 Sr. PG; Deuce Sims, 6-1 Sr. G; Will Cianfrini, 6-4 Sr. F; Connor Hawk, 6-2 Jr. F;

Key Departures: Cole Murray, Josh Shields

Why they’ll win: Talent. And lots of it. The Lancers already returned player of the year candidate Jake Hall, who will continue his assault on the CIF San Diego all-time scoring record, and Duckett, who made the All Section second team in his second varsity season, from a team that was a few possessions away from the Open Division finals. Then over the summer, Jael Martin, an all-state selection at tiny Pacifica Christian in Santa Monica with multiple Division 1 offers, moved to Carlsbad and only reinforced that the Lancers would be major players in the Open conversation. After a strong summer that saw the team capture a title at the prestigious Section 7 Team Camp, Davis - an all-league standout from rival El Camino, and Sims - a talented combo guard and a two-year starter at San Marcos - checked in, giving the Lancers one of the deepest and talent-laden squads the region has seen in a while. This doesn’t include football transfers Connor Hawk and Will Cianfrini (SDSU football commit), who have serious hoops credentials as well. Combined with much improved holdovers Tristan Guzman and Jordan Garner, the Lancers rotation has few weaknesses.

Why they won’t: Role allocation. All of the Lancers newcomers come from teams where they either were the offensive focus (Martin and Davis) or needed the ball to be effective on offense (Sims). How head coach Clark Allard gets everyone to buy into playing unselfish basketball will determine if this team reaches its immense ceiling.

2. Montgomery

Last Season: 25-7, 11-1 Mesa League; Open Division Runners up

Key Returners: JJ Sanchez, 6-5 Jr. F; Alek Sanchez, 6-4 Jr. G; Xair Mendez, 6-2 Jr. G; Devin Hamilton, 6-5 Jr. W; David Soto, 6-3 Sr. G; Xavier Guerrero, 6-5 So. F; Jayden Cannon, 6-5 Jr. F

Key Additions: None

Key Departures: Nico Reyes

Why they’ll win: Chemistry. You could argue that other than the St. Augustine squad that just finished off a historic two-year run, no team in recent San Diego history is as connected as the Montgomery squad that enters Year 3 together. The Sanchez twins possess the highest basketball IQs in San Diego, and continue to confound opponents as they both came off of All-Section seasons as sophomores. But the supporting cast has also improved, especially Hamilton and Soto, who had breakout summers during the Aztecs runs to two championship appearances - at the Boys California Live event in Irvine and Section 7. This team is primed for yet another deep run in the Open Division.

Why they won’t: Depth (again). The Aztecs only go six deep, seven if you count the sparingly used Jayden Cannon. Injuries or foul trouble to any of the core six could spell trouble in an Open Division playoff matchup. But in a positive turn, the Aztecs were able to beat several quality teams in September at the Lamont Smith Fall Showcase without JJ Sanchez.

3. St. Augustine

Last Season: 28-5, 10-0 Western League; Open Division Champions

Key Returners: Lolo Rudolph, 6-2 Sr. PG; Ian De La Rosa, 6-3 Sr. G; Jaiden Bailes, 6-2 So. G; Manny Cortez, 6-4 Jr. F; Isaiah Hasten, 6-3 Sr. W; Talan Hunter, 6-3 Sr. W

Key Additions: Anthony Etheridge, 6-5 Fr. W; Drew Parker, 6-3 Fr. G; Johnny Stone, 6-2 Jr. G; Paisios Polamolu, 5-10 Fr. G; Leo Hawkinson, 6-0 So. G

Key Departures: Jurian Dixon, Jaden Matingou, Derrius Carter-Hollinger, Vincent Ricchiuti

Why they’ll win: Pedigree. This isn’t the first time that Mike Haupt’s program has been rebuilt on the fly. Three years ago, the Saints entered the year with only one varsity player with meaningful minutes - Isaiah Brickner - and two freshmen and two sophomores rounding out the starting five. That group made the Open Division playoffs. Those freshmen were Lolo Rudolph and Ian De La Rosa, who both return as All Section performers from last year’s Open Division championship squad, which ran through San Diego opponents. You could argue that their presence alone puts this squad - which will likely feature a sophomore and a freshman in the starting lineup - in a better position than the 2021 group. The sophomore, Jaiden Bailes, showed during the summer (he averaged 20 points per game in Rudolph’s absence at Section 7 and Boys California Live) that he is ready to take the next step. Etheridge, who improved with each game, is as athletic and talented of a prospect that Haupt has had during his tenure - and that is saying a lot. And don’t forget juniors Johnny Stone, one of the best shooters in the class, and the tough and underrated Manny Cortez, who is as versatile a defender as you’ll find in SD. Don’t expect this team to relinquish their two-year run atop San Diego without a fight.

Why they won’t: Youth. Will the Saints youngsters - Etheridge, Drew Parker and Paisios Polamolu – son of NFL legend Troy Polamolu - make the leap from middle school stars to high school role players in time enough to be ready for the Saints always tough nonleague schedule? And how will they stand up to the rest of the Western League, where teams are chomping at the bit to knock off the Saints after a two-year undefeated run? Their development will go a long way to determine this group’s ceiling.

4. Mission Bay

Last Season: 24-10, 7-3 Western League; Division 1 Finalists

Key Returners: Charlie Hutchison, 6-7 Sr. F; Gavin Girouard, 6-1 Sr. G; Marcos Korch, 6-2 Sr. G; Isaah Whitehurst, 6-1 Sr. G; Charlie Grebing, 6-4 Sr. F; Kumari West, 6-1 Sr. G; Atreju De La Cruz, 6-1 Jr. G; Kevon Fitzpatrick, 6-3 Jr. W

Key Additions: Caleb Newton, 6-5 So. G; Pablo Balderas, 6-6 Jr. F, Clay Grebing, 6-6 So. F; Devon Sawyer-Jones, 6-1 Jr. G; Ajani Jones, 5-9 So. G; Abwolla Ochalla, 6-5 Jr. F; Jeremiah Fort, 6-5 Jr. F

Key Departures: Angelo Gil, Thomas Metcalf

Why they’ll win: Size and depth. The Buccaneers roster is an embarrassment of riches and functional size, starting with Hutchison, who made the All Section team as a junior. The playmaking forward can score it from every level and blossomed as a junior into a bona fide star. The team has six players over 6-5 in the rotation, including Pablo Balderas, who has been on a tear this fall after missing all of last season with an injury, and Clay Grebing, who Cherry is very high on and has Hutchison-esque versatility. The recent insertion of Newton, an all-LA City Section point guard from Lake Balboa Birmingham, gives the Bucs a D1 prospect who will immediately be one of the section’s best players. The rest of the Buccaneer guards aren’t shabby either, as Girouard transformed into a scoring machine as a junior, earning all-league second team honors in a league where St. Augustine had five selections a year ago. Korch and Whitehurst are big, strong guards who are tough on the boards and on defense. De La Cruz and West are improved lead guards who round out the rotation. On paper, this team is arguably the second most talented team in the section. How they coalesce will determine how far they can go.

Why they won’t: Too much depth? The problem with having a roster that boasts 15 players who could probably all play varsity at another school is keeping everyone happy. That will be Cherry’s biggest challenge throughout the year. The Bucs already had two defections this preseason, as 6-1 transfer Treyvon Davis transferred back to Bonita Vista and Oz Blackaller returned to High Tech High SD this fall.

5. Torrey Pines

Last Season: 18-12, 5-5 Mesa League; Open Division playoffs

Key Returners: Zach Jackson, 6-5 Sr. F; Matin Madadkar, 6-4 Sr. G; Max Zylicz, 6-4 Sr. G; Cody Shen, 6-2 Jr. G; Dylan Kail, 6-3 Sr. G; Marcos Delgado, 6-7 Sr. C, Zander Ovies, 6-2 So. G; Karel Novy, 6-4 Jr. F (inj)

Key Additions: Tevaris Green, 6-4 So. W; Aidan Sykes, 6-5 Jr. W; Amir Sadeghi, Jr. G; Zain Mehio, 6-4 Jr. W

Key Departures: JJ Bartelloni, Alex Cabulio

Why they’ll win: Improvement. There might not be a more improved core of players in San Diego than at Torrey Pines. After a very un-Falcon-like season that saw the program not win a league title for the first time in 10 years, Torrey Pines has looked like the team we’re used to seeing during the summer and fall. While they don’t have a single dominant prospect, this team has no fewer than seven players who could play at the college level, led by Jackson, the rock-steady interior presence whose game has evolved since being a corner-three shooter on the Coronado Division 2 title team as a freshman. Madadkar, Zylicz and Kail are late-blooming prospects who had strong summers, all contributing to the Falcons title run at Section 7. And the young guards, Shen and Ovies, are a year older and much more confident running the team. Add in Green - whose versatility defensively and improved shooting will make it hard to keep him off the court - and this team could disrupt the Open Division conversation.

Why they won’t: Who’s the closer? One thing that this Torrey Pines team lacks from vintage Falcons squads is a player who could get their own bucket from all three levels during crunch time. While that might not be a major issue during the regular season, it could be huge during an Open Division matchup against one of the teams ahead of them, which all have a go-to guy.

6. La Costa Canyon

Last Season: 16-13, 7-3 Palomar League; Open Division playoffs

Key Returners: Ryan Quain, 5-10 Sr. PG; Drew Clevenger, 6-0 Sr. G; Cameron Brown, 6-3 Sr. G; Trevor Ladd, 6-5 Sr. F; Jasper Buck, 6-2 Jr. G; Charlie Hoier, 6-4 Jr. G, Reilly Briggs, 6-4 Sr. F;

Key Additions: Mason Jones, 6-7 So. C; Rufus Holmes, 5-11 Jr. G; Brady Berlucchi, 6-4 Fr. W

Key Departures: Christian Brown, Wesley Smith, Ty Hendler, Parker Jelsing, Ben Hoier

Why they’ll win: Scrappiness. For the past few years, LCC has reinserted itself into the Open Division discussion with upper-tier talent (See: Brown, Henlder). This team doesn’t have a player as talented as the all-section duo, but the seven-deep rotation will outwork you, outsmart you and outshoot you. Quain and Clevenger are underrated guards who played solid support roles last year and look comfortable in their expanded roles during the fall. Ladd was the bruiser and glue of the past two Open Division runs and Hoier has a nice blend of size and shooting ability on the wing. But the breakout player for the Mavs over the summer was Buck, the lefty flamethrower who has become a more reliable ball handler and playmaker. Don’t be surprised to see this team back in the Open Division mix.

Why they won’t: The Coastal NC League. While the league isn’t the murderers row of last year (San Marcos and Mission Hills have been replaced by Sage Creek and San Dieguito Academy), the Mavs will have to bring their “A” game every night against Torrey Pines, El Camino and Carlsbad, no easy task.

7. Cathedral Catholic

Last Season: 15-14, 4-6 Western League; Division 1 playoffs

Key Returners: Ryan Enos, 6-9 Sr. C; Andrew Garcia, 5-9 Sr. G; Patrick O’Brien, 6-4 Jr. G; Bobby Tyson, 6-1 Sr. G; Brendan Cordaro, 6-5 Sr. F; Zach Francavilla, 6-2 Sr. F

Key Additions: Ty Ingram, 6-2 So. G; Paul “PJ” Jourdain, 6-3 Jr. G; Kai Carlson, 6-5 So. F; Coen Sponsel, 6-1 So. G; Daniel Mariduena, 6-6 So. F; Max Meza, 6-0 So. G; Thomas Brzezinski, 6-1 Jr. G

Key Departures: Shea Fitzgerald, Tre Lucia, Amon Andrews, Thomas Fleming

Why they’ll win: Scoring. This team, under first year head coach Graham Bousley, has a plethora of offensive weapons, starting with the gifted Ingram, who is primed to become one of the section’s leading scorers as the No. 1 offensive option. Alongside him in the back court, 6-5 Patrick O’Brien gives the Dons size, versatility and confidence at the point. And emerging as a viable third option is Jourdain, who oozes potential and should be a breakout player after spending last season on the JV team. The team’s role players are skilled and can all shoot, including Carlson, who brings size alongside Enos, who should rebound after a disappointing junior campaign.

Why they won’t: Chemistry and Defense. The team breaks in a new coach and a high-profile transfer in the same season. How they mesh with the program holdovers will go a long way to determine their ceiling. None of the team’s key players are known as defensive stoppers. Can the group coalesce to create an, at the very least, average defensive unit for Bousley. With Mission Bay and Saints both looking strong, they’ll need to in order to keep pace in the Western.

8. Santa Fe Christian

Last season: 24-6, 11-1 Coastal League, Open Division qualifier

Key Returners: Brycen Mackenzie, 6-2 Sr. G; Greyson Mundis, 6-0 Sr. G; Dax Hall, 5-10 So. G; Jayden Luckett, 6-7 Sr. C; Drew Konsmo, 6-4 Jr. F; Jack Gonzalez, 6-2 Sr. W; Marcellus Sonkin, 5-9 Sr. G

Key Newcomers: Carson Gile, 5-6 So. G; Caden Doucette, 5-9 So. G; Tyler Tyszkiewicz, 6-0 Jr. G; Lucas Sit, 5-9 Jr. G, Head Coach Matt Carlino

Key Departures: Jeremy Love, Daniel Greathouse, Drew Bickley, Head Coach Chad Bickley

Why they'll win: Guard play: The Eagles return the Coastal League’s reigning player of the year in Mackenzie, who committed to Northwest Nazarene this fall. He comprises one third of one of the region’s most underrated back court trios with Hall, a rapidly rising sophomore guard and Mundis, a physical combo guard. Mackenzie showed throughout the season that he's capable of singlehandedly taking a game over. The next step for him is to trust his teammates to shoulder the load.

Why they won't: Interior play: On paper, this shouldn't be a weakness, as Luckett, a massive presence at 6-7 270, patrols the middle. But they need consistent production on the boards from him and Konsmo - a high-motor hybrid forward with a great motor - in order to reach their ceiling as a team.

9. El Camino

Last Season: 18-12, 4-6 Palomar League; Division 1 quarterfinalists

Key Returners: Isaiah Pomare, 6-5 Sr. F; Logan Ardent, 6-3 Jr. G, Brandon Boone, 5-11 Sr. G; Terrion Woodard, 6-3 Sr. 6-6 Sr. F; Shawn Sidiqi, 6-5 Jr. G

Key Additions: Justin Johnson, 6-5 Fr. W; Devin McGee, 6-0 Jr. G

Key Departures: Euan Davis, Semote Katuwonga, Pea Misaalefua, Luke Picha

Why they’ll win: Physicality. The Wildcats thrive on the defensive end, where they play a physical brand of man defense with loads of length on the back line. The catalyst is Pomare, who elevated his game as a junior and is set to take an even bigger jump as a senior as a versatile wing who can guard every position and is a fierce competitor on the boards. Ardent, Woodard and McGee comprise as good of a defensive back court as you’ll see in the section. Boone and Sidiqi provide timely shooting and defend well enough to fit second-year head coach Derick Jones’ scheme.

Why they won’t: Consistent scoring. Losing Davis, whose playmaking ability made the game easier for everyone, looms large. A lot will fall on Ardent, who is a solid facilitator but will need to become more dynamic to help the Wildcats absorb the blow.

10. La Jolla Country Day

Last Season: 24-8, 11-1 Western League; Division 1 Champions

Key Returners: Chris Carrillo, 5-11 Jr. PG; Ely Elegado, 6-1 Jr. SG; James Wei, 6-2 Sr. F; Henry Kiamilev, 6-0 Jr. G; Wyatt Tilson, 6-2 So. F; Jaden Mangini, 6-2 Sr. F; Ekin Matanza, 6-1 Jr. W; Reid Givens, 6-5 Jr. F (inj), Jack Levin, 6-2 Sr. F,

Key Additions: Luke Givens, 6-4 Jr. F; Josh Priest, 6-1 Fr. G

Key Departures: Anthony Aruffo, Bito Bass-Sulpizio, Jake Altman

Why they’ll win: Guard play. Three key contributors from the team that crashed Santa Fe Christian’s Coastal League party last season return, and two of them make up one of the region’s most underrated back courts - junior guards Carrillo (one of the top true PGs in California) and Elegado (one of the top shooters in the class). In Carrillo, the Torreys have a player who elevates the pieces around him and can take a game over down the stretch with his own scoring. Elegado, who scored a team-high 20 points in the D1 championship win over Mission Bay, returns with improved confidence and scoring off the bounce. Kiamilev is on the verge of a breakout season, looking improved over the spring and summer. And while playing out of position in the frontcourt, Wei, Mangini and Tilson - who averaged 25 points per game on the JV level a season ago - have the physicality and toughness to neutralize opponents in the paint.

Why they won’t: Rebounding - or lack thereof. This team is prone to droughts on the boards due to its lack of frontcourt size, which is exacerbated by the graduation of Bass-Sulpizio. They need those aforementioned undersized guys - plus Matanza, who is a physical rebounder and defender.


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