Sports

Torrey Pines builds elite LAX program on foundation of caring for others

The titles, and national recognition are nice. The program’s reputation for encouraging academic excellence is a source of pride, too.

But in the bigger scheme of things, what matters most to Torrey Pines lacrosse coach Jono Zissi is what his players do to help others.

Zissi demands that his players be involved in something bigger than themselves, and their sport. Reading to local elementary school kids, visiting wounded war veterans, running lacrosse clinics for inner-city kids, and adopting young cancer patients, are among the goodwill activities his players participate in.

“It’s literally the most important part of our program, without question,” Zissi said.

Caring for others has made the Falcons no less competitive.

The Falcons are coming off one of their best seasons in program history. Torrey Pines went 19-1 on their way to its first Open Division championship since 2013. The Falcons played some elite programs on the East Coast, where the sport is more well established.

“Winning is huge,” said Evan Egan, a standout from the championship team earlier this year who is just starting his collegiate career at Division I North Carolina. “It’s really important to us, but at the end of the day coach Zissi and the staff really care that we’re good young guys and good young men and that we treat people well.”

Zissi has made community service an integral part of the team’s culture since he took over the program in 2011.

The Falcons’ community service includes regularly reading to kids at Del Mar Pines Elementary School. The team rotates players visiting the school, with each player going a few times each month.

The program has been involved with the Friends of Jaclyn (FOJ) program and Foundation (www.friendsofjaclyn.net), which aims to improve the lives of children battling brain cancer and other forms of rare cancer.

The Falcons in 2012 adopted Jose Montoya, then an 11-year-old cancer patient, as an honorary member of the team. After Montoya’s death, the team adopted Irving Goodman, who is battling a rare form of cancer, in 2016. Goodman is now 9.

Torrey Pines and The Bishop’s School, which is also involved in the FOJ program, started playing an annual Friends of Jaclyn Cup game in 2017.

The Falcons have also been involved in the Harlem Lacrosse, a leadership program that targets at-risk youths in inner cities.

“You can never do too much community service,” Zissi said, noting the effects of social media and technology in the way that young people interact.

“You have so many odds that you’re going up against as a coach or a teacher right now that getting them to think outside themselves is a very difficult challenge.”

The demands of the program aren’t easy, Zissi bluntly acknowledges.

Giving time to others while juggling the demands of exhausting practices, long hours in the team’s film room along with the school’s rigorous academic demands, requires genuine sacrifice.

“If you just play recreationally, you probably won’t want to play at Torrey,” Zissi said. “We have a lot of attrition each year and that’s a good thing. Not everyone wants to put in 25 hours a week and make it their life. We’re really good because we put a lot of time in.”

The team also visits to Veterans Hospital in San Diego.

“That was a really cool experience and kind of eye opening as far as what some people give for our freedom,” Egan said. “As much as it is that we’re doing community service, in a way it’s giving back to us more than we’re giving back to them with what it’s teaching us and what we’re doing.”

The program is also involved in One Love, a program that raises awareness of relationship violence. The program is dedicated to Yeardley Love, a lacrosse player at University of Virginia who was murdered by her boyfriend, also a Virginia lacrosse player.

The team holds workshops with the girls’ lacrosse and track and field teams that helps kids understand the dynamics of violent relationships. “A lot of these kids are in unhealthy relationships and they don’t even know it,” Zissi said.

What’s made the involvement in community service work at Torrey Pines successful is that rather than viewing it as a burden, players are embracing it as a rewarding experience.

“It teaches us that at the end of the day there’s more important things than lacrosse,” Egan said. “As important as lacrosse is to us, and as seriously as we take it, at the end of the day there’s more important things.

“Lacrosse doesn’t necessarily make or break out team, it’s kind of about what kind of people we become.”

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