Just playing has been ‘perfect’ for Torrey Pines field hockey team

Faith Choe (#12), Jans Croon (#1) and Sophie Rosenblum celebrate a Choe goal (assisted by Croon) vs. Canyon Crest.
Faith Choe (#12), Jans Croon (#1) and Sophie Rosenblum celebrate a Choe goal (assisted by Croon) vs. Canyon Crest.

(Ken Grosse)

Beginning in February, San Diego high school athletics started down the road of a long-awaited comeback and while it will still be a challenging trek to reach a truly “back-to-normal” scenario, most sports and their participants are ecstatic just to be back in the competitive arena.

The return has come in all shapes and sizes with differences being the rule rather than the exception. And the per sport approaches mandated by CIF run the gamut. For instance, field hockey, normally played in the fall, is in the midst of a short though fairly robust regular season but will have no culminating CIF Championship. Frustrating for sure, but the latter situation has apparently had absolutely no affect at all on Coach Courtney Spleen and her resilient Torrey Pines field hockey squad.

The Falcons, who posted a sparkling 22-4 record in Spleen’s first year (2019) and reached the CIF Open Division semi-finals after an undefeated run through the Avocado West League, have raced out to a 10-0 mark entering the home stretch of their Covid re-calendared 2020-21 campaign.

Torrey Pines second-year Head Coach Courtney Spleen
Torrey Pines second-year Head Coach Courtney Spleen
(Ken Grosse)

They’re ranked No. 1 in the State of California (the top San Diego school) by MaxPreps and No. 12 nationally. While those rankings are clearly far from scientific, Spleen and her charges seem to be playing with obvious purpose, intent on proving—CIF playoffs or not—that they are the premier team in the section this season.

Torrey Pines has outscored its opponents by a cumulative total of 49-2 and four of the victories have come against teams ranked in the state’s Top 10, including perennial San Diego power Serra and defending CIF Open titlist Scripps Ranch. A grueling early schedule was developed by design.

“Not having CIF Playoffs to shoot for was really disappointing, especially since this seems to be a year we might have been able to win it all,” said Spleen. “We felt it was important to schedule Serra, Scripps Ranch and as many strong teams as we could just to give us a sense of where we stood. You have to take what you’ve been given and do the best you can with it.”

The dominant results have not been totally unexpected. The Falcons boast a very well-balanced roster that includes half a dozen seniors, a proficient group of juniors and sophomores and several fresh faces who are already contributing.

“We graduated only three seniors so we basically had a full returning roster before we even integrated the newcomers,” Spleen said. “We felt we had the potential to win every game.”

Senior Faith Choe scored two goals against CCA to increase her team-leading total to 11.
Senior Faith Choe scored two goals against CCA to increase her team-leading total to 11.
(Ken Grosse)

As amazing as the undefeated record and massive point differential is the fact that Torrey could be even better. Spleen lost two of her top five scorers from 2019 when junior Leilani Llamas moved to Texas and two-sport standout Stella Mikolajewski opted to play lacrosse when the Covid-juggled seasons intersected.

No problem for the deep, talented Falcons. The six seniors have accounted for 23 goals so far, led by Faith Choe (11) and Hailey Dewey (5). Five other players have accounted for four apiece. The 5-foot-3 MIT-bound Choe felt her team’s focus during the pandemic served it well.

“We were a good team last year so we started with a great foundation but knew we had room to grow and improve,” said Choe. “Since we’ve basically had the last year to train, we were able to concentrate on getting better and were ready to go as soon as things got re-started. We also have a lot of players who play with local clubs and are good enough to be playing in college next year—that really elevates the level.”

One key newcomer making an immediate impact is senior Jans Croon, who moved with her family from Manhattan Beach to Rancho Santa Fe. A native of the field hockey crazy Netherlands, where she began playing at age 6, Croon stepped into Llamas’ center midfield slot and has fit in seamlessly.

“Jans’ leadership and work ethic have certainly helped—she’s a big communicator,” noted Spleen. “She’s also an amazing defender, good tackler, sees the field well and has a great shot.”

Croon, who has scored three goals from her primarily defensive position, is a natural defender who nonetheless is comfortable in the hybrid task. “My role is to be an ‘open’ player, an outlet that can receive the ball and transfer it with as few touches as possible,” said Croon. “From where I’m positioned, I have a clear overview of the whole field which helps in organizing players up front.

“I’m always ready to join the play offensively, while understanding my responsibilities as the front line of the defense.” Placing Croon in the midfield was partly a function of her versatility but largely due to the returning skill the Falcons had on their back line.

Super consistent senior center back Gracie Jimenez is flanked by senior Erin Poe and junior Philine Klas, forming a formidable trio in front of much-improved sophomore goalie Bella Anfuso, who started in the cage as a freshman despite having no prior experience. Jimenez, headed to Cal next fall, is a solid anchor in the middle. The physical Poe is adept moving the ball and drawing fouls on the right side and stick-handling whiz Klas, whose soph sister, Smilla, is a teammate, figures to slide from the left into Jimenez’s role next season.

Even the offensive-oriented Choe admits that defense drives Torrey’s success.

“I feel like, in general, our defense is stronger than our offense,” Choe said. “Offensively, we’re better this year when we get the ball inside the circle and converting on corners, but our defense is definitely the backbone of our team.

“They keep us organized and focused. When they’re composed, so is the rest of the team.”

After Monday’s, 4-1, triumph over well-regarded neighborhood foe Canyon Crest Academy, the Falcons stand just one win short of a perfect season. They finish their schedule on the road against rival La Costa Canyon Wednesday.

The objective is well-defined but reflective of so many fellow student-athletes across the county in this era, Croons and Choe also identify success in much broader terms.

The year at Torrey Pines was unique for Croons due to the fact that she’d never before played prep field hockey since her previous school, Manhattan Beach Mira Costa, didn’t sponsor the sport.

“This was the first time I’ve played in over a year and it was so much fun being at Torrey Pines, meeting new people, broadening my field hockey community and just playing a team sport for my school,” said Croons. “It’s been so much fun to experience that part of high school and this season has been extra special because we didn’t know if we were actually going to have a season.

“When we finally heard we would be able to play, we had four games in our first week which was amazing because it kind of came out of nowhere.”

Choe was also nothing but positive appreciative. “Going undefeated would be a fantastic achievement but our win (2-1) over Serra was very significant and probably the best measure of our success this season,” added Choe. “We lost to them three times last season, the third, 1-0, in overtime of the CIF semi-finals. It was incredibly exciting for us as players, our coaches and fans.

“Honestly though, we’re all just super-excited to actually have had a season. No CIF may have been a disappointment but we’re grateful we had the opportunity to play at all.”