In April 2019, El Capitan High School was seeking a new varsity boys basketball coach. Elias Totah took over the reins as a young coach tasked with the challenge of leading the Vaqueros program.
It proved to be a timely move as Totah and his staff helped lead El Capitan to a runner-up finish in the San Diego Section Division IV championship game on Feb. 28.
But the journey to the CIF finals was a long and sometimes convoluted one.
“I was coaching at West Hills High school for six seasons as a freshman, junior varsity and varsity coach under the late great Jeff Armstrong, who had coached there for 21 years,” Totah explained. “He taught and mentored me about everything he knew of what the game of basketball entailed, especially from a coaching perspective. He became my best friend, another father figure. I will always be grateful for what he did for me.
“I was astonished and intrigued by his work ethic, attention to detail, approach and commitment to his work as a basketball coach. I knew I could learn and grow a lot in such a little amount of time because he was a great teacher, something that a lot of people never sat back and gave him credit for.
“I had played two seasons under him at West Hills. During my senior season, I suffered through knee injuries. During that time he kept me on the team and started to groom me as a coach while still playing for him. After I graduated at 18, he wanted me to come back and coach his freshman team. The rest was history as I moved my way up with him guiding me all along. Without him, I would not be where I am today.”
After Armstrong passed away in October 2018, Totah decided that after the 2018-29 season was over, at 23 years of age, he would seek a varsity coaching position.
This past offseason, he interviewed at both El Cajon Valley and El Capitan high schools.
“El Capitan had just gone through five head coaches in five seasons — it was quite remarkable, to say the least,” Totah said. “I was intrigued with the situation. There was a lot of talent that needed to be honed and fine-tuned. El Capitan was the best fit for me, all in all. The administration welcomed me with open arms, and I was confident in what I could bring to the table.”
Totah used the first practice of the season to deliver a lofty goal.
“I told our guys that I was focused on one thing — to win a CIF championship,” the new El Cap coach said. “They had not won a championship in the entire school history.”
The Vaqueros got right to work on meeting that goal.
“We were in Division IV for this season and I wanted to schedule some tougher opponents — Division I, Division II and Division III teams — to give us some key experience early on,” Totah said. “Notable matchups against San Marcos, Bonita Vista, Serra and Lincoln were key to our playoff success.”
Senior forward Jake Pfitzner averaged 22.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game on 49 percent shooting from the field as the team leader.
“He had an impeccable work ethic, always wanting to grow as a shooter and expand his game,” Totah said. “He was arguably the most physically imposing player on the basketball floor in every game we played. He will move on and play great basketball wherever he lands at the collegiate level.”
The Vaqueros had finished 6-19 in 2016-17 and 8-19 in 2017-18, showing there was room to grow following a quarterfinal-round appearance in the 2019 Division IV playoffs.
Totah wanted to take the Vaqs to the next level. Perhaps fittingly, the journey started at the 2019 Armstrong Memorial tournament hosted by El Capitan High School prior to the winter break.
“We started the season on a positive note with key wins against Scripps Ranch (48-47 in overtime) and Mt. Carmel (56-53) — two wins that would pay dividends for CIF seeding,” Totah said. “Right before the new year, we were 7-5 and we were feeling pretty good about ourselves heading into league play. We had a key win against West Hills (61-55 on Jan. 8) before league play started.”
Then the tables turned a bit.
The Vaqs lost four games in a row in league play by a total of five points — one point to Mount Miguel, two points to Granite Hills, one point to Monte Vista and one point to El Cajon Valley.
“We learned a lot about ourselves during that stretch,” Totah said. “We were so close of getting over the hump.
“I wanted to preach and encourage the same mentality all along, consistency was key for us. Our players grew in that stretch. We had great senior leadership all season in Pfitzner as well as forward Blaize Saiz and point guard Harrison Morton, both seniors, who understood the moment and what needed to be done to fight through this adversity.
“We ended the season 11-14 overall and qualified for the CIF playoffs as the No. 6 seed. We played No. 11 seed San Pasqual which had won the Division V championship a season ago. They came out with a defensive mindset and were hungry off the tip-off. It took us a couple of quarters to dissect their defensive pressure and execute. We ended up beating San Pasqual by a hard fought 15-point margin (58-43).”
The Vaqueros played from behind in winning their next two playoff games, showing that perseverance pays off.
“We then moved onto play No. 3 seed High Tech San Diego and their league MVP David McRae,” Totah said. “This was our first test of playing in a true hostile environment. We went down by six points at the half. We made some key adjustments to counteract their front court presence. Freshman big man Micah Odell contributed mightily for us. He rebounded, blocked, and altered shots for us and helped us win by 10 points (58-48) in a game where High Tech hosted its first-ever CIF playoff game.
“We moved onto the semifinal against No. 2 seed O’Farrell Charter. They were 25-4 and were on a 17-game winning streak coming into our match-up. They had three guards who averaged 19, 16, and 16 points per game. They prioritized and leaned on their lethal backcourt all season long.
“We were down as many as 13 points in the first half. We cut the lead to eight points at the half and stormed all the way back, led by Saiz, who had a season high 23 points and the game winning basket with seven seconds to go.
“It was a game to remember as we prevailed with a three-point victory (58-55) to punch our ticket to the CIF championship game.”
El Capitan met the top-seeded Calexico Bulldogs in the championship game, with the Bulldogs boasting a 27-3 record and a 58-53 non-league win over the Vaqueros in a neutral site tournament game earlier in the season.
Totah’s crew gave it their best shot, but a well-equipped Calexico team prevailed, 70-57, to end the Lakeside team’s season.
“We did not execute the way we wanted to,” Totah said. “We started the game slow and lethargic. We could not dig ourselves out of a hole. It was a learning experience for all of us. It still stings, but it does not discredit what we had accomplished all season long.
“We gained experience and I was truly proud of our players and staff for the incredible season that we had.”
Totah’s team has seven players returning for next season: sophomore guards Daisean Desinor, R.J. Lugtu and Jordan Bonilla, freshman and sophomore big men Odell and Trevor Moklestad and two junior big men Jacob Bergherm and Jacob Howard.
“A multitude of bright young talent that we are excited about that will lead us into next season,” Totah said. “The future is bright and there will be plenty more monumental seasons that are ahead for El Capitan boys basketball.”
Above the rim
El Capitan was the lone East County team to advance to a divisional championship game in 2019-20, though Grossmont Valley League champion Granite Hills (17-10) advanced as far as the Division III semifinals.
Santana junior Ethan Wolchko followed Pfitzner on the league tally sheet by averaging 15.9 points per game while El Cajon Valley junior M.J. Rivera averaged 13.3 points per game.