Back in the early days of his tenure with the San Dieguito Academy boys soccer team, when Head Coach Michael Elenz-Martin discussed his squad he often sounded more like a CEO than a high school coach.
Instead of talking primarily about wins and losses, X’s & O’s and other typical athletic banter, Elenz-Martin’s words centered on his long range plan for the program, outlined the non-athletic benefits he wanted to provide for his players and, most of all, emphasized developing a culture that would lead to success on the field.
Today, in the middle of Elenz-Martin’s fifth season, the story of what the Mustang boys have accomplished is truly remarkable. The “CEO” has a blue chip stock on his hands. His charges also have a very real chance of making history by capturing the first CIF Open Division championship for San Dieguito in any sport.
Taking over a Division II side that had won just four games the previous season, the new coach doubled the win total in year one (2018-19) and in the three-plus seasons since has racked up a stellar 54-22-16 mark. SDA has also methodically climbed the ladder in the post-season—CIF Division II quarterfinals to DII semi-finals and then the DII championship game which they dropped vs. Valhalla in 2021.
Last winter, the now-elevated-to-Division I Mustangs promptly earned one of the eight coveted slots in the CIF Open Division Playoffs. After starting the regular season 13-3-5, they ran out of steam late, dropping four of the last five, including a one-sided loss to Coronado in the CIF’s first round.
This season, San Dieguito is 12-2-4, the only blemishes being a late game, 3-2, holiday tournament defeat at the hands of Perry, the No. 2 team in Arizona, and 4-0 shocker last Friday at San Pasqual, the defending Open Division titlist. The San Pasqual defeat aside, with a roster boasting 19 seniors, SDA is currently ranked No. 2 in the CIF’s Power Rankings and has proved itself capable of challenging anyone in the San Diego Section. The Mustangs have outscored opponents, 43-13, and posted 13 shutouts.
“This could be a real special year,” said Elenz-Martin. “It’s been a year-to-year progression to get here, though, and the season is a progression unto itself.
“Right now, we want to stay healthy, take it game-by-game, really focus on the training and team play and stay humble. We’re able to do that because we’ve got an experienced group of guys, many who came in and got playing time as sophomores.
“They’ve helped set the culture that is really our foundation. Our guys know their roles and what they need to do to change their roles. We’ve had a target on our backs this year and I think our record shows our depth and strength.”
Employing a possession-oriented approach, SDA likes to attack from the wings but can also play through the middle with fluidity. Elenz-Martin allows his players to make their own decisions on the field which results in a free-flowing, visually-pleasing style. While things naturally evolve through the midfield, the Mustangs have talent up-and-down the field.
On the back end, 6-1 Davidson commit Lucas Beltran is formidable presence in goal. “He’s the full, complete goalkeeper,” says Elenz-Martin. “He’s a solid shot blocker, has intelligence on ball, can use both feet and his tactical ability is outstanding.”
In the middle of the defensive four are center backs Jake Kluka and Mason McDermott, flanked by left back Richie Espinoza and junior team captain Garrett Delorme, the only non-senior of the quartet.
“I think McDermott and Luka are the strongest center backs in San Diego right now,” lauded Elenz-Martin. “Jake is explosive fast, physical and is known for his aerial ability. Mason is pretty clean with his decision-making, always does things at the right moment.
“Outside, Richie and Garrett both love to get forward and involved in the attacking end. They give us quality crosses with a high level of accuracy and great distribution.”
Speaking of great distribution, it’s one of the reasons Elenz-Martin sometimes refers to center attacking midfielder Soren Groessl as “the magician.” The senior has excellent vision and a knack for scoring goals in and around the box—he’s chalked up six goals and five assists on the season. Another pair of fourth-year players, Nico Quanback (also headed to Davidson) and Ethan McNulty (USD), patrol the wings. Senior Matt McLeod and junior Riley Kellar are part of the regular midfield rotation.
“We have a dynamic midfield that’s very deep and is one of the core strengths of our roster,” said Elenz-Martin. “They work very well together and give us the versatility to change looks according to what the opponent does.”
When the ball gets into the final third, the Mustangs’ striker combo of seniors Jackson D’Alessandro (UC Riverside commit), a transfer from La Costa Canyon, and Gavin Culley (Albert commit) is deadly. The duo has combined for 24 goals and 11 assists to date and is a heavily responsible for the fact that the team is averaging nearly three goals per match.
“Jackson has become one of our best attacking players and has the speed and ability to go at a defender 1v1,” says Elenz-Martin. “Gavin is very versatile and operates a lot on the outside. He’s got a gift for scoring and his movement off the ball is phenomenal. Those two together make it very tough for opposing defenses.”
So now, with the pieces in place, what will it take for the Mustangs to get over the final barrier and earn that first championship banner? For Elenz-Martin, the answer is not complicated.
“A lot of it comes down to keeping focused on the simple things,” he said. “The routines, the environment you’ve created, going back to the basics. Sometimes, when you have an overload of success, you can lose track of how you handle those things.
“Doing the little things right, being consistent with that, holding everyone accountable—that’s when you see long term success and can reach the end result.”
Six regular season games are left starting this week on the road at Rancho Bernardo (Wednesday) and Torrey Pines (Friday). A good chance to test the sturdiness of SDA’s mindset. “One week at a time, one game at a time,” smiled Elenz-Martin. “With the loss to San Pasqual, we’re facing some trials and tribulations right now—every team does during a season. It’s good for the kids to go through that and get a chance to respond.”
SOREN GROESSL Q & A
At 5-9, 148 pounds with a bushy head of curly brown hair that dominates first appearances, Soren Groessl does not necessarily come across immediately as a standout athlete. But put the 17-year-old Encinitas resident on a soccer field and he displays the kind of talent that has made him one of the best players on one of San Diego’s best prep teams, San Dieguito Academy.
The senior center midfielder has been a three-year starter on a squad that is clearly one of the prime contenders for a berth in this year’s CIF Open Division bracket and has the look of a potential champion. He’s recorded six goals and five assists to date.
His head coach, Michael Elenz-Martin, who has also been his club coach at Encinitas Express, has no shortage of praise for Groessl’s talents or the way that he utilizes them. “He is definitely one of the best midfielders in the county but is also very humble and unselfish,” says Elenz-Martin. “Soren reads the game exceptionally well, is very technical but sees things so far in advance that he puts himself in positions early enough to be more effective than other attacking players.
“He is capable as a goal-scorer but his sense of selflessness makes him even more of a force. He won’t go 1v1 at a poor angle, instead makes the assist on someone else’s goal and is just as proud of what he’s done. He’s an ultimate team player.” Also solid in the classroom, he boasts a weighted GPA of over 4.0 at SDA.
With the CIF Playoffs now less than a month away, Groessl took time to share his thoughts on a number of topics, including the ascent of the SDA program, how he would describe various teammates and some of his off-the-field activity.
Q—From your perspective, what have been the key factors in the boys soccer program’s rise during your four seasons at SDA?
GROESSL—I would have to say it started with the classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022. We were always looking up at the standard they set, seeing how they acted, their effort and how they passed it along.
The work effort has always been great at SDA and that hard work and talent has been paying off. You combine that with all of the coaches and it’s not surprising. Mike (Elenz-Martin) is an amazing leader and knows how to get the best out of each player, regardless of their role.
Q—When you were a freshman, did you envision a time during your high school career that SDA could compete toe-to-toe with the teams perennially at the top of Division I?
GROESSL—That’s always what I believed. I knew our freshman class was good enough to grow to be a very good team and it’s really cool to see that happening now.
A lot of a player’s development comes from those years in between, before they reach varsity. You can get a lot better with good players around you. When I made the choice to go to San Dieguito, I knew the team was pretty solid, I knew our coach because I had played for him in club soccer and wanted to continue to play for him. I had also asked around and knew other good players were planning to play at SDA.
Q—Your team has a huge senior class. How close is the team on and off the field and how important is that shared experience in making your team a CIF contender this season?
GROESSL—I would say we’re very close, super close, and are always around each other. I’m going to be friends with these guys for a long time. The experience has been so much fun.
As a team, togetherness is something that wins you games and I know that’s won us a lot of games. When things get tight, those relationships can beat talent. This year, we’ve had a couple of results that could have gone the other way but our communication and togetherness won us those games.
Q—What about soccer made it your favorite sport?
GROESSL—I haven’t played others to the same extent, so it’s hard to make comparisons, but just some of the experiences I’ve had come to mind. There are so many places I’ve gone, people from so many different places, nations, I’ve met thanks to soccer.
I watch soccer globally, follow it online and learned so many things by doing that. It’s a lifestyle. I mean I walk around my house with a ball at my feet.
Q—What are the most important things that Coach Mike Elenz-Martin brings to the SDA program?
GROESSL—I think Mike’s best quality is “man management.” He’s a great leader and one-on-one he’s very effective at bringing confidence to each player. He’s extremely organized, provides goals and is always keeping us in check which is really important at the high school level. I know he always gets me motivated.
Q—What makes San Dieguito different from other top programs?
GROESSL—As a school, SDA has always prided itself on being inclusive and appreciating others. As a squad, we try to get the best out of every individual and put that together to win games. Our team is always positive, always looking to encourage each other and never put our heads down.
We try to be confident but not cocky, treat every game the same and want to make sure we’re having fun while also striving to win games and go as far as we can.
Q—What has been the highlight of your SDA career to date?
GROESSL—As a sophomore, my first year on the varsity, the whole playoff run was amazing. Only a sophomore and getting to play at an older, higher level was awesome.
After the championship game, the team bus stopped at In ‘n Out (no the bus did not go through the drive thru) and it was a very special night. Hopefully, we’ll be making some new memories this season with league, CIF and maybe even state.
Q—Here’s a list of a half dozen of your SDA teammates. What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of each?
GROESSL—Jackson D’Alessandro – “Spark.” Gavin Culley – “Create.” Garrett Delorme – “Link.” Lucas Beltran – “Wall.” Nico Quanbeck – “Untouchable.” Ethan McNaughton – “Everything.”
Q—Off the field in your down time, you’ve said you like to watch movies, read books, play some video games and just relax. What would you say is your favorite movie and maybe provide a critique of something you’ve seen recently?
GROESSL—For a large percentage of my life, I’d say “Cars” is my top movie—it’s a classic. I could go watch it right now and it would probably be better than 99% of the other choices I’d have. When I was a kid I used to play with cars, crash them into each other, they were all dented. My friends had cars too but theirs were all nice and clean. Anyway, the movie’s great and good for all ages.
Recently, I watched Smile which is a horror movie. I thought it was terrible, primarily because I hate horror movies. I watched Forrest Gump a few weeks ago and it would probably be my second favorite.
Q—What has been your favorite class at SDA?
GROESSL—Culinary Arts, taught by Mr. Huntley. I’m taking it this year. I took it online as a sophomore but making food in your own kitchen doesn’t really count. In our class groups, we get to communicate, make food from all over the world together and eat it, which is great, especially since I have the class right before lunch.
It’s super laid back, will really help me in the future and it’s something I always look forward to. This year we’ve been making some really difficult dishes. Recently we made frittata which took three days of prep.
Q—What do you see in your future, academically and athletically?
GROESSL—That is the hardest question. Right now, I’m considering several schools for college, including UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis and Wisconsin, which is my mom and dad’s alma mater. I’ve gotten into some smaller schools where I could also play soccer. They are great options but I’m more focused on academics and not necessarily eager about the time commitment required to play Division I soccer. The best chance to play intercollegiate soccer may be at UC Santa Cruz. I may try to walk on, depending on where I go, or play club soccer. I can’t see myself quitting the game altogether. Personally, I can have fun playing at any level but don’t want to sacrifice my education to do it.
Academically, I’m planning to major in psychology, the subject in which both my parents got degrees. I feel like through that I can change the world in a small sense. My dad works in healthcare research and my mom’s a social worker. Looking up to them, I think I can help others.
Q—How confident are you that SDA has what it takes to win the CIF Open Division Championship this year?
GROESSL—100%. I’ve seen how good we’ve played and how good we can be. If we’re at our best, I think we can beat any team out there. That said, it’s extremely important to take things one game at a time.
It would be a difficult task as our loss last Friday night proved. There are so many good teams and the No. 1 seed has not won the title since I’ve been at SDA.
As a team, we talked about after Friday’s game, talked about what motivates us, why we’re out here and what we can do to turn things around. We have six games left and we’re going to treat them like six finals. We have to win out—that’s very important to us.