Tough, national caliber schedules prep Torrey Pines, LCC lacrosse teams for rivalry shoot-out

Torrey Pines boys celebrate win over Highland Park (Texas).
(Ken Grosse)

Over the course of four days next week, the boys and girls lacrosse teams from Torrey Pines and La Costa Canyon will square off in games that will likely determine not only the champion of the 2018 Avocado West League but the No. 1 seeding in the CIF Open Division Playoffs, which start May 5 for the girls and May 12 for the boys.

Two-time CIF-winning coach Jono Zissi’s Torrey Pines outfit is top-ranked in the section. According to US Lacrosse Magazine, it is also first in the West Region and 21st nationally. On Friday, April 27, the Falcons will face Coach Kevin Cooper’s 2017 CIF champion La Costa Canyon team that is currently second-ranked behind Torrey Pines in San Diego and third in the West Region. It will be the only regular season match-up between the two teams.

The two girls teams are equally impressive. Coach Casey Rector’s LCC side is ranked No. 1 in San Diego and fourth in the West (US Lacrosse). On Tuesday, three days in front of the boys’ game, they will be hosting a Torrey Pines squad coached by Kaitlin Doucette that is second in San Diego and sixth in the region. The Falcons have won the last two CIF titles but Rector’s Mavericks won the four prior to that and defeated Torrey on its home turf, 10-5, earlier this year.

So which two teams will prevail in these battles of lacrosse heavyweights? The outcomes could be determined in part by Regis Jesuit (Colorado), Potomac (Maryland), Highland Park (Texas), Glenbrook South (Ilinois), Darien (Connecticut) and Noble and Greenough (Massachusetts).

Who, you say? All are among a group of national caliber programs from across the country who have played one or more of the four La Costa Canyon/Torrey Pines clubs this year. In all, the four San Diego teams have faced 14 opponents from eight states in the non-league portion of their schedules. The LCC-TP quartet will also have battled 13 California foes from outside of San Diego before the regular season is concluded.

And why are all of these “intersectional” match-ups taking place? Although it’s probably too simplistic an answer, in large part, it is to give themselves a better chance of beating each other. There’s an above average chance that these four teams are going to collide in their respective mid-May CIF title clashes, meaning there are few local rivals who will provide the type of competition they’ll face when they go head-to-head.

“Lacrosse is still pretty primitive as a sport and beyond the top seven or eight schools in San Diego, there isn’t anyone competitive with us,” says Zissi, whose 125-34 record over nine years at TP makes him a resident expert. “We have to make a 20-game schedule and it really doesn’t do anyone any good to have a bunch of 20-goals wins on the schedule.

“We want to be ranked, we’re all striving for that in some shape or fashion, and if we want that, we have to play these types of teams.” The CIF uses rankings from LAX Power to determine its own seedings so, much like the RPI utilized by major NCAA sports, a good loss is often better than a bad win, making the top teams’ scheduling philosophies logical. It’s also not as complicated a process as it might appear.

Given the typical early season weather back East, the top local teams often find playing partners calling them. “There are so many schools that want to come to San Diego, it’s a situation we’re fortunate to be in,” said Zissi. “We’re also usually able to pair up with someone else to get the visiting team multiple games when they come here.”

This season, in addition to hosting five out-of-state opponents, Zissi’s Falcons traveled to Connecticut just before spring break for a pair of road contests against two highly-regarded foes, including Darien, the nation’s No. 2-ranked team. After hanging tough for much of the game, Torrey Pines suffered its lone loss (14-4) against a Darien team that had 57 straight wins at the time. They bounced back to knock off Ridgefield in game two the next night.

“We last made an East Coast trip in 2012 and with the great senior group we have this season, it made sense to do it again now,” said Zissi. “We left late Thursday, missed one day of school, got into our hotel at 3:30 a.m. and had to play Darien Friday night. It’s not the most efficient way to do it but that’s the way it had to be.

“It snowed a little when we were there and for some guys it was the first time in a game of that magnitude. The place was packed, I would say around 2,000. That experience will pay dividends.”

Which brings us back to the ultimate reason for the far-reaching non-league schedules. Both of next week’s LCC-Torrey match-ups should be “must see” events for prep sports fans.

Zissi’s Torrey Pines boys have a senior-laden squad that he feels is ready to do good things. “Over the years, I’ve learned that teams are typically only as strong as their senior class,” he said. “We’ve got a good one.”

The Falcons are also incredibly balanced offensively. “We have 10-12 guys scoring points every game,” said Zissi, “which, from an offensive standpoint is kind of a coaches’ dream. It makes us pretty hard to scout.”

Torrey’s top scorer is attacker Alex Pistorious and Zissi calls senior midfielder Ryan Ramirez, his team captain, “the lifeblood of our team.” The Falcon defense is anchored by senior North Carolina commit Evan Egan.

Cooper’s LCC squad might be a bit of an underdog in this one but the Mavs are San Diego’s second-ranked team as well as the reigning CIF crown holders. The third-year head coach may have lost 9-of-10 starters from that 2017 team but had a pair of big pieces in his arsenal to rebuild around. Senior Isaac Smith is among the best prep faceoff men you’ll find and once the Mavericks have possession, junior JJ Sillstrop might be as good at finding the back of the net as any player in San Diego. The 5-foot-9 lefty has been LCC’s top scorer the past two seasons. Junior Colin O’Connor, carrying the long stick, has stepped into a more prominent midfield role.

The girls game should be just as intriguing. Although Rector’s charges prevailed relatively easily when the two rivals clashed on March 7, she knows better than to expect a replay when they face off Tuesday, April 24.

“My team showed up, had a couple of games under its belt and may have wanted it more in March,” said Rector, alluding to the fact that at the time, Torrey Pines owned a six-game winning streak over the Mavericks with two of those wins coming in CIF play. “I think both teams have gotten better and from looking at the comparative scores, you can see it’s going to be much more even this time.”

La Costa Canyon is led offensively by the senior tandem of CJ Jones and Tessa Bass. Junior Sarah McLean has provided ample support and the recent return of senior Lina Savage from an injury has added a significant new option to the Maverick attack. Junior Alex Walling, who played her freshman season at Torrey Pines, has been solid and at times spectacular in goal. Defender Lexi Likins has been a clutch performer up-and-down the field.

The goal is also a strength for the Falcons with Duke-bound senior Sophia Lerose protecting the net and spearheading the defense. On the other end of the field, Kelli McKinnon, Mia Kohn and Arielle Shahrabain have been mainstays in an improving offense that has scored 14 or more goals in seven-of-its-last-eight games.

Zissi, undoubtedly speaking for his coaching colleagues as well, is smart enough to know that nothing can be taken for granted in this series. “This is potentially our most talented Torrey Pines team but in a rivalry game like this, that doesn’t matter,” he said. “In my eight previous years, I feel like this has never been more than a 3-4 point game, regardless of the expectation coming in. I know our team cares a lot about winning the league championship and LCC is the biggest team in the way.” He also knows it’s special, even by standard rivalry measures.

“I tell our players how lucky they are to have a situation like the one we have with LCC,” continued Zissi. “It’s always good and competitive and goes way beyond lacrosse.

“There are not many schools playing at such a high level that year-in and year-out can say they have an opportunity like we do with LCC.” It’s a pretty good deal for local fans too.

Game Days:

Tuesday, April 24 Girls Lacrosse Torrey Pines @ La Costa Canyon 7 p.m.

Friday, April 27 Boys Lacrosse Torrey Pines @ La Costa Canyon 6 p.m.

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