REGION — This time last year, North County’s position as the bastion of high school basketball in San Diego was unquestioned.
The region boasted no fewer than 10 teams that had legitimate shots to take home Section crowns, and the bulk of the county’s NCAA Division 1 basketball prospects suited up for North County teams.
That was then.
Flash forward to today, and while the region still has quality teams and players, the balance of power has shifted south and east, and North County is in a position it has seldom found itself — underdog.
The Coast News looks at five major themes to this year’s basketball season:
- Can North County teams win titles this year?
The short answer is yes, but becomes a longer conversation when discussing at what level.
Under the current CIF divisional system, teams are placed in divisions based on their records the previous five seasons. The CIF Open Division is reserved for the top eight Division 1 schools at the end of the season. If preseason ranks are any indicators, four of the North County’s top teams — Army Navy, Torrey Pines, Escondido and El Camino — will likely be headed to the Open Division, where they face significant odds to win against the three teams considered to be the favorites: Foothills Christian, St. Augustine and Cathedral Catholic.
In the section’s lower divisions, however, North County teams have very good chances to win. San Marcos and Vista will likely be contenders in Division 1, Rancho Bernardo, Ramona and Orange Glen are considered favorites in Division 2 and several other teams will vie for titles in divisions 3, 4 and 5.
- Youth movement
While North County is only home to two of the prospects who signed Division 1 letters of intent in November, there are a number of underclassmen who appear to be on the path of restoring some of the luster to North County.
In 2017, Army Navy forward Richard Polanco is considered a three-star recruit who has a number of schools recruiting him, including USC, Nevada and the University of San Diego. Rancho Bernardo has another Division 1 recruit in Jamison “JJ” Overton, a junior who plays on the same travel team as Polanco. Michael Diaz of Orange Glen also has a chance to play himself into some Division 1 interest. In 2018, North County has at least three players who have already amassed interest from Division 1 programs, including Escondido forward Warren Washington, who has a scholarship offer from Nevada, Vista point guard Taurus Samuels, who is courting interest from a number of schools, including UC Irvine, Harvard and Boise State and El Camino’s Jalen Flanagan, a stifling defender who has improved as a scorer and shooter. North County’s freshman class includes two of the most highly touted prospects on the West Coast — La Costa Canyon guard Graham Cook and Vista guard Jordan Hilstock.
- Timberwolves on the rise
In the four years since fielding its varsity basketball team, Mission Vista High School in Oceanside has had very little in the way of success: Try 24 wins and 72 losses. This year, however, the Timberwolves have an opportunity to break through its losing history in a big way.
Led by new head coach Davion Famber and senior forward Burke Twyman — an athletic 6-7 forward who can score from all over — Mission Vista has set its sights on the first CIF section title in Division 4.
Famber has a roster loaded with size, including 6-9 center Chris Butler and 6-6 forward Tyler Jones, but the key to the Timberwolves season will be the play of its improved guards, including junior guards Shane Foster and Ben Cabrera.
While the Timberwolves are considered an underdog to Orange Glen and Ramona in the Valley League, the team will no longer be the league pushovers, and could even steal a game against the league favorites when they travel to Oceanside. The league will provide the Timberwolves with a valuable tune-up for the Division 4 playoffs, where their combination of size and solid guard play will make them a favorite.
- Injuries mar Avocado East
San Marcos’ two high schools are facing adversity even before the season begins in the form of injuries to key players. For the Knights’, the team lost its leader, senior point guard Mikey Howell, to a torn knee ligament during the summer. Howell, a 6-2 point guard, blossomed into an All League performer last year, and his ball handling, court vision and leadership create a major void for the league favorites.
At Mission Hills, senior guard Vaso Rakovic was supposed to be a critical piece for the Grizzlies this season, tore his ACL during the summer and will also miss the season.
Both the Knights and Grizzlies will rely on role players from last season’s teams to fill the voids created by injuries. For San Marcos, senior guard Josh Ramirez will play an expanded role, and the Grizzlies will rely on Tristan Hixon, a role player last season who Coach Curtis Hofmeister called the best shooter the program has seen since Kibret Woldenmichael and Cody Hicks — tall praise.
- The fall of the Mavs
For more than a decade, the La Costa Canyon Mavericks have been the standard bearer for North County basketball. Last season, the Mavericks saw three of their seniors matriculate to Division 1 schools — Travis Fuller to Brown, Tommy McCarthy to Harvard and Brady Twombly to Northern Arizona.
But the losses did not stop there — the Mavericks graduated its Top 8 players from last season’s Open Division semifinal team, leaving Coach Dave Cassaw to do something he hasn’t had to do during his time in South Carlsbad- rebuild.
The centerpiece of the rebuilding project will be several junior varsity players — sophomores Christian Gallagher and Stephen Sedlock– and freshman guard Graham Cook, who is one of the top freshman guards in the state.
Expectations are low for the Mavericks, but a playoff berth and top-half finish in the Avocado West league is not out of the question.
North County Preseason Top 10:
- Army Navy
- Torrey Pines
- El Camino
- San Marcos
- Rancho Bernardo
- Orange Glen
Top players to watch:
- Johnny McWilliams, 2016 6-5 SG, San Marcos- Fresno State-bound shooting guard is a gifted scoring wing who has improved each year as a defender.
- Richard Polanco, 2017 6-7 PF, Army Navy- Powerful point-forward type has a unique combination elite court vision and raw power.
- Aziz Seck, 2016 6-7 F/C, Army Navy- Northern Arizona-bound forward possesses freakish athleticism and length and is a formidable rebounder and interior defender.
- Marcus Hentley, 2016 6-1 G, Escondido- Explosive scorer will have to improve as a distributor for Escondido to unlock its true potential.
- JJ Overton, 2017 6-4 G, Rancho Bernardo-Wiry combination guard is one of the top play-making guards in the Southern California 2017 class.
- Keegan Cummins, 2016 6-9 C, Escondido-Imposing big man has had huge games for Cougars, but must become more consistent.
- Michael Diaz, 2017 6-2 PG, Orange Glen-Hyper-athletic lead guard is a consistent jump shot away from being close to unguardable.
- Sean Birk, 2016 6-0 PG, El Camino-Scoring point guard is coming off a breakout junior campaign and courting college interest.
- Taurus Samuels, 2018 6-0 PG, Vista-Sophomore point guard blends superior court vision with quickness and scoring prowess.
- Terrence Becvar, 2016 5-11 PG, Valley Center- Senior guard is a lethal shooter who has has become a more-than-capable point guard. Dropped 50 points in summer league game this year.
- Marco Cobian, 2016 6-4 SG, Ramona-Grid-hooper is a big-time scorer and physical wing.
- Burke Twyman, 2016 6-7 PF, Mission Vista-Athletic forward has put up monster stats during his career. On his first team with a chance to do damage.
- Warren Washington, 2018 6-9 PF, Escondido-One of the top sophomore bigs on the West Coast, Washington can play inside and out.
- Jackson Strong, 2016 6-3 SG, Torrey Pines- Sharpshooter was a key piece to Torrey Pines’ deepest state playoff run in school history.
- Jack Heller, 2016 6-3 SG, Torrey Pines-Strong’s bookend is his equal as a shooter, a highly coveted Division 3 prospect.
- Eric Pierce, 2016 6-5 G, El Camino- Late-blooming senior wing has all the tools to play at the Division 1 level. Consistency is critical.
- Jake Gilliam, 2017 6-10 C, Torrey Pines- Junior big man is a space eater who is an excellent passer and perfect fit in John Olive’s swing offense.
- Conner Nelson, 2016 6-7 W, Del Norte- Relative unknown outside of the Avo East league, the 6-7 sharpshooter is primed for a big senior season.
- Ben Okhotin, 2017 6-6 W, Westview- 6-6 junior shooting guard will remind many of former Poway guard Dalton Soffer. In short: one of the best shooters in Southern California.
- Beni Mokili, 2016 6-1 G, Rancho Bernardo-Underrated athletic combo guard is a two-way player: capable scorer and lockdown defender.
- Ed Fenzi, 2017 6-0 PG, Army Navy-Sturdily built point guard can set the table for a talented Warriors lineup, score on his own.
- Jalen Flanagan, 2018 6-2 G, El Camino- Long, athletic sophomore combo guard has become one of the top on-ball defenders in his class.
- Zach Reiter, 2018 6-2 G, Poway- Sophomore wing bullies his way to the basket and can shoot it from deep.
- Tray Gaiter, 2016 6-4 W, Rancho Buena Vista- Athletic wing defends all five positions at the high school level.
- Jason Simmrin, 2016 6-5 PF, San Marcos- Big-bodied face-up forward is a capable shooter and Swiss-Army-Knife playmaker.
- Cameron Wager, 2017 6-3 W, Mission Hills- Strong wing is a load to handle off the dribble. Improved shooter.
25B. Cameron Henry, 2017 5-11 SG, Vista- Prolific shooter is the perimeter catalyst to Panthers shooting attack.