Torrey Pines, La Costa boys again figure among section’s lacrosse elite

Torrey Pines midfielder Porter Hollen
(Ken Grosse)

Since the CIF established an Open Division bracket for boys lacrosse in 2013, four of the six championships have been won by either Torrey Pines or La Costa Canyon (two apiece). The Falcons, coached by Jon Zissi are defending champions, having prevailed 7-5 over Coronado after rebounding from a 3-0 deficit in the title game. La Costa Canyon beat Coronado by one goal to capture the 2017 crown. The 2019 season got underway last week and those same two teams figure to be front and center when the championship is on the line in two months.

Seniors will be key to both squads and two of the best fourth-year standouts in the county are LCC forward JJ Sillstrop and Torrey Pines midfielder Porter Hollen. Sillstrop, a nearly unstoppable offensive force who will be playing at Denver University next year, scored 69 goals during his junior year while earning All-American and first team All-CIF status for the second consecutive time. The Brown-bound Hollen, who also garnered Adlin All-America recognition, racked up 12 goals and 23 assists a season ago as Torrey Pines rolled to the section title while posting an 18-1 record, the only loss coming against national power Darien (CT). Their coaches are among the pair’s biggest fans.

“Nobody gets more attention from opposing defenses,” said LCC Head Coach Kevin Cooper about two-year team captain Sillstrop. “Last year, he handled it so well—he was incredible individually and does an outstanding job of getting teammates involved. His strengths? Really everything. He’s the straw that stirs our drink.”

Torrey Pines Head Coach Jon Zissi is equally effusive about Hollen. “Porter is the third Hollen to play in our program and has been a three-year starter,” said Zissi. “He’s one of our best feeders, has an extremely high IQ for the game and is just a tremendous leader. That last quality is demonstrated by the fact that he was a unanimous choice as one of our team captains.”

The two teams will be pointing towards their annual showdown, slated this year for April 26. With the season still in its early stages, the two players took time to share their thoughts on their teams, their coaches and the rivalry, one of the best in local prep sports.

What were your feelings on your team’s performance last year?

Hollen—It is accurate to say that our team was more talented last year, as we were a senior heavy group and many on the team are now playing in college. But what set us apart was our dependable leadership and having fallen short in years past there was a new energy—a new desire to give it everything we had. We played with passion and flew around with a proud swagger.

Winning the CIF championship was amazing. It had come to feel almost like a curse. When we won, I almost couldn’t believe it. It was the best feeling in the world, and I hope to feel that sensation again.

Sillstrop—We had a great season and won a bunch of very tough games that showed our team’s resilience. The core of that team had been playing together since the fifth grade, we had good chemistry and really bought into the process, trusting our coaches and team leaders. However, at LCC, any season without a CIF championship win is a failure, so it was not as successful as we would have liked.

JJ Sillstrop
LCC forward JJ Sillstrop Ken Grosse

What do you expect the strengths of your 2019 team to be?

Hollen—I think that same leadership is installed in our team this year, with seven captains we should be in good shape. We have a young but talented defense that I trust will do its job like always. Our offensive is both experienced and talented. I think we will be dangerous this year.

Sillstrop—Our strength this year should be our team chemistry and a ‘chip on our shoulder’ attitude. As I said, we had good chemistry last year but I we’re making it a point to remember what happened last year and taking that ‘failure’ to heart. Our goal is to win it all and the focus we have is going to make our chemistry even stronger.

Is there a player on your 2019 roster that you feel could be a breakout star this season?

Hollen—There are several that come to mind. Miles Botkiss is a scrappy lefty who has had a great pre-season. I think Blake Erlbeck will have another awesome year and Conrad Delgado will fill some big shoes very well while helping star Marco Napolitano hold it down on defense. As always, I will expect our senior class to perform as it usually does.

Sillstrop—At LCC, in the off-season, we watch hours of film, have pre-season workouts and meet up to discuss our goals for the upcoming season, so every single player has the opportunity and ability to break out at any given moment. That may sound like a bit of a cliché but I 100 percent believe in our team and after playing with each other through a really intense fall season, everyone has truly gotten exponentially better and shown they have the capability to be a standout when the opportunity presents itself.

What do you consider your team’s biggest regular season game?

Hollen—As usual, we’re excited about all the out-of-state powerhouses we have scheduled and are ready to maintain our top spot in the West. But most of all, I think we are excited about our rivalry game against La Costa Canyon. Being one of the last games before the playoffs, it sets the tone perfectly for that time of the year and shows who is the top dawg going into the post-season. It always draws a big crowd and will be an epic battle in an awesome atmosphere.

When you go out on the field, it’s so loud and you kind of get butterflies. I’m friends with a lot of guys on the LCC team but that week we’re not friends—it’s so competitive, there’s so much passion.

Sillstrop—We take every game seriously. We don’t prepare for one more than another but, our biggest game would definitely be Torrey Pines. The rivalry has been a back-and-forth battle since before I was born so we are grateful to be able to keep it alive. My dad actually coached at Torrey Pines, so it’s a little weird sometimes but having grown up as a lacrosse fan in this area, I know it’s the best high game to watch every year and it’s really special being able to actually play in it.

La Costa Canyon won the 2017 CIF championship and Torrey Pines did the same last season. How would you handicap your team’s chances this year?

Hollen—Although it is tough to predict an entire season this early, based on how our pre-season has gone, I believe we will be very tough to stop when we are rolling. With the level of competition, anything can happen but we have a really good shot of winning again this year. We’ll have to see how our team progresses over the course of the season.

Sillstrop—It wasn’t easy in 2017 and it won’t be easy in 2019. We are going to have to spend hours on the field, in the film room and recover the right way. There are a lot of good teams out there and the one that is able to do all the little things right will be the best—that could be us.

Both Jon Zissi (Torrey Pines) and Kevin Cooper (LCC) are among the most respected high school coaches in San Diego; what makes your coach so successful?

Hollen—Coach Z takes a different approach than most. In comparison to other coaches, a lot of us are very close with him which allows us to develop a genuine relationship. He helps us become better men along with becoming better lacrosse players.

He is successful because he truly puts his all into our program. He does not focus on our ability to play lacrosse but ensures that we adhere to the “three C’s”—character, culture and community. Making us better people ultimately makes us better players.

Sillstrop—What makes Kevin so successful is his relationships with his players. Everyone on the team trusts that Kevin knows what he’s talking about and has our backs no matter what. Before games, during timeouts and at halftime, he always says all the right things. When a situation isn’t right he has the ability to get us back on track.

From your perspective, what is the best thing about playing lacrosse? If you had the power, how would you change the game?

Hollen—For me, the best part of playing lacrosse is being part of a team—a team that is incredibly close from player-to-player. I also like the idea of playing when people do not want to see you win. ‘Torrey Pines vs. everybody’ is one of our slogans and there is no better feeling than proving all the naysayers and critics wrong, as we did last year. Also, a player, you can be so creative. Even if you’re not the biggest, fastest or strongest, you can find ways to score—you can be your own player.

The one thing I would be cool as far as changing the game would be adding the 60-second clock in high school. They call lacrosse “the fastest game on two feet” and I think bringing the clock into our game would make it faster and reward skill.

Sillstrop—The best thing about lacrosse is how creative you can be and that there is no right way to do any one thing. I’m primarily an offensive player, so the only rule I would change is bringing back the crease dive. It’s an exciting play that showcases the kind of talent we have on the field.