Former Falcons lacrosse star to visit Torrey Pines High School with teammates for clinic

Former Torrey Pines standout Lucas Gradinger now plays for the Maryland Terrapins. He’ll return to Torrey Pines on March 19 when he and his teammates hold a clinic for local middle school students.
Former Torrey Pines standout Lucas Gradinger now plays for the Maryland Terrapins. He’ll return to Torrey Pines on March 19 when he and his teammates hold a clinic for local middle school students.
(Photo by Anna Scipione)

Former Torrey Pines lacrosse sensation Lucas Gradinger is coming home, and he isn’t coming alone.

Gradinger, now a sophomore midfielder for perennial national Division I collegiate power Maryland, will be joined by his Terrapins teammates who will spend a day at Torrey Pines High teaching their craft to local middle school students who hope to someday follow in their footsteps.

The Terrapins, who will be in the area for a national showcase game against North Carolina that aims to promote the sport on the West Coast, will hold the clinic on the Falcons’ practice field. They’ll also use the facility March 21 to prepare for this year’s annual Pacific Coast Shootout at Santa Ana Stadium.

Maryland will be on the Torrey Pines campus for their clinic and practice on March 19.

Torrey Pines coach Jono Zissi, who is from Boston, brainstormed the idea for the clinic and practice at Torrey Pines with Maryland coach John Tillman, whom he knows from his own lacrosse playing days on the East Coast. Zissi said the Terrapins had already planned to tour the local Navy SEAL base earlier in the day, which made the visit to the Torrey Pines campus seem like a natural fit.

That Gradinger plays for Maryland made the idea a slam-dunk.

Gradinger concluded his distinguished Torrey Pines prep career in 2013 as a two-time All-American and was the 2013 U.S. Lacrosse Western Region Player of the Year. He tallied 291 points in four years on the varsity (144 goals, 147 assists) during his four-year varsity career.

“He’s one of the most legendary players to ever come through Torrey Pines High School, and for him to come back and for all our kids to visit with him and see how well he’s doing — that’s pretty special,” Zissi said.

The Pacific Coast Shootout game will showcase a sport that’s grown exponentially in Southern California, and in San Diego County in particular, since it was introduced to the high school sports scene barely 10 years ago as a club sport and an officially sanctioned game shortly afterwards.

Last season’s final Top 10 for the West region featured two local teams (No. 5 Cathedral Catholic and No. 8 La Costa Canyon). Foothill of Santa Ana was the region’s top-ranked team.

“Why do a clinic? It’s just a captive audience,” Zissi said. “These kids are so thirsty for these kinds of role models, this kind of instruction.

“They read about them on the Internet, they know all the Maryland kids, the Duke kids, the Notre Dame kids (Duke and Notre Dame played in last year’s Pacific Coast Shootout) — so to actually bring that to them in our backyard for our Torrey Pines feeder program, it’s pretty special.”

The Pacific Coast Shootout figures to attract lacrosse fans from throughout the Southland from Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire to the Mexican border, Zissi said. The game features two teams ranked in the NCAA’s top 25. North Carolina is ranked No. 4 and Maryland No. 10.

“Just to bring the game to an area that’s dying to see high-level lacrosse is pretty special,” Zissi said.

“Now that the game’s growing so much out here, a lot of Western kids are starting to go back (East) to play the sport in college, and this makes something that they’re all striving for tangible; it’s in their backyard and they can see basically what their dream is.”

Kids on the West Coast have limited options to see high-level lacrosse live, Zissi said, noting that there is just one Division I collegiate program on the men’s circuit (University of Denver) west of Ohio State.

The dearth of West Coast collegiate programs presents tough choices for athletes, Zissi said, noting that in addition to committing to the grueling demands of a Division I sport, they also have to commit to moving far away from home.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “For all these kids coming out of high schools who want to play college lacrosse, you have to make two big decisions now: Do you want to play college lacrosse, and are you willing to move back east?”

Lacrosse was recently added to several Pacific-12 schools on the women’s circuit, but men’s programs have yet to find funding for the sport, which Zissi said costs about four times as much. More-expensive helmets, gloves and shoulder pads are needed for the men’s game, which is much more physical and involves contact that closely resembles football and hockey. The women’s game, he said, is more similar to basketball and soccer.

Title IX regulations present an uphill battle for the Pacific-12 Conference bringing in men’s lacrosse, Zissi said, noting that University of Michigan, which recently added the support, is requiring the sport to be self-funded at the cost of $7 million annually.

Zissi believes the sport’s popularity will eventually drive the Pac-12 to adopt men’s lacrosse.

“I’ve got to imagine that bubble’s going to burst sooner than later,” he said. “Between Stanford, USC, UCLA and Oregon, I can’t imagine five years from now that that’s not a Division I league.”