New Falcon field hockey team still has CIF Championship focus

Senior Philine Klas anchors the defense for the highly-ranked Torrey Pines field hockey team.
Senior Philine Klas anchors the defense for the highly-ranked Torrey Pines field hockey team.
(Ken Grosse)

Although reminders of a 2020-21 high school athletic year turned on its head by the Covid pandemic are still liberally scattered around the prep sports landscape, for the most part, 2021-22 has been a forceful step towards normalcy—a moment to enjoy and focus on better times ahead.

That said, for various reasons, last year and what could have been still lingers in the minds of many. Count the Torrey Pines field hockey team--an outfit that went undefeated (11-0), captured the Avocado West League championship and outscored opponents to the tune of 52-3—as one in that category.

“We had a good feeling at the end—we won every game which was an amazing accomplishment considering the tough schedule,” recalled third-year Torrey Head Coach Courtney Spleen. “Between Covid and a shortened season that happened roughly five months later than it usually does, we made the best of the situation.”

Falcon defender Grace Vargo
Falcon defender Grace Vargo
(Ken Grosse)

Regardless, most around the Torrey program look back with a least a small sense of regret. It was a phenomenal campaign by nearly every standard—save one. There was no CIF Championship held for field hockey last season, a fact that is hard to erase for those involved.

“Winning the CIF Championship validates everything,” said Spleen. “Particularly for us because it’s something we haven’t accomplished in a while.”

In 2019, Spleen’s first year at the helm, Torrey Pines reached the CIF semi-finals where it lost in overtime to Canyon Hills (formerly Serra). It was the Falcons’ third loss to the perennial San Diego power (and measuring stick) and propelled the winners into the CIF title match for the 18th time in 19 years.

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

In last year’s regular season, Spleen’s squad turned the tables, knocking off Canyon Hills, 2-1—but not having the opportunity to build on that result in the post-season was hard to swallow. “We lost to them three times in 2019, including the CIF semi-finals, so taking that next step was something we were striving for,” said Spleen. “We had the team to do it and getting that title last year would have meant a lot.”

Torrey graduated a significant band of top players from that club, including the quartet of Jans Croon, Gracie Jimenez, Faith Choe and Erin Poe. The first three are all playing college field hockey and replacing the group figured to be a stern test for Spleen. She has 13 seniors on her roster but knew filling in for the experience lost would not just be plug and play.

“Yes, we have 13 seniors, but we are still a young ‘varsity’ team,” noted Spleen. “Not all of those seniors have a lot of experience playing at the varsity level.

“Having seniors is definitely a positive though, because they provide a lot of strong leadership on and off the field. Their time in the program allows them to bring a lot of knowledge which is extremely important in a year like this where we have so many freshmen and sophomores on the varsity who have never even been on campus for classes.”

Defense and penalty corners are two areas critical to field hockey success and have been spots where Torrey Pines has excelled under Spleen. The aforementioned four graduates played leading parts in both.

“Overall, losing that foursome and other club players leaves a big gap in those units (defense/corner),” said Spleen early in the season. “They are points of emphasis and we need to have young players step up, learn quickly and contribute as soon as possible.”

A work in progress, maybe, but early returns have been encouraging. Heading into their final non-league contests, Wednesday with San Marcos, Friday against La Costa Canyon and next Wednesday vs. Canyon Hills (all three at home), the Falcons sport a 4-1 ledger. They are again out-scoring opponents at an impressive rate (28-7) and are No. 3 in the U-T’s initial San Diego section rankings.

Leading the way are senior center back Philine Klas and her sister, Smilla, a junior center midfielder. The pair have both been starters since they arrived and provide a solid foundation for bridging the gap Spleen alluded to.

“They’re both so steady,” said Spleen. “As a senior in her position, Philine is the glue for the defense. She sees the whole field, dictates a lot of the plays and typically marks up the other team’s most dangerous player in the box.”

Senior Bella Anfuso, another returning starter gives Torrey Pines a proven commodity in goal. Although she had relatively little work early in the season, Anfuso has a history of coming up big when the stakes are high.

A trio of sophomores is also making a mark for the Falcons. Isabella Tassara teams with Smilla Klas at center mid, Abigail Raysman has established herself at right back and versatile Sophie Rosenblum is contributing in a variety of assignments. Senior Caitlin Tresse is the squad’s scoring leader with five goals.

After three relatively easy shutout performances, Torrey Pines was forced to come from behind for the first time in a road outing at Poway before eventually outlasting the Titans, 3-2 . In its last contest, the Falcons suffered their first loss, 4-1, against undefeated host Scripps Ranch, the 2019 CIF titlist. Down, 2-0, midway at Scripps Ranch, Torrey Pines cut the margin in half late in the third quarter only to see the home club score twice in a three minute span to put things away.

Spleen was happy to see her team face adversity and pleased it was able to weather the storm at Poway. Although her unit was missing some pieces, including Smilla Klas, against No. 2 Scripps Ranch, she knew the outcome needs to serve as a warning for a team with high expectations.

“Both games were good for us to work some things out and let our new people better understand their positions and the pace of the game,” Spleen said. “We haven’t played games like that for a while where we had to work for a win.

“In some ways, I believe the loss will be good for us. We haven’t lost a game in a long time and it didn’t feel good. Sometimes I think you have to experience that feeling to realize how great winning feels and how small the difference can be between winning and losing.

“At this point, I think our girls recognize that we’re a good team but not a dominant team.” They’ve still got roughly two months to figure out what it will take to make that leap—and if they do, this time they know the prize they want will be there for the taking.

Philine Klas will be playing at Penn University of Pennsylvania next year.
Philine Klas will be playing at Penn University of Pennsylvania next year.
(Ken Grosse)

Q&A with senior center back Philine Klas

One of the key holdovers from Torrey Pines’ 2020-21 Avocado West League champions is four-year starter Philine Klas. A standout two-way player who’s committed to play at University of Pennsylvania next fall, Klas patrols the middle of the field from her center back position for the Falcons.

The 5’-9” senior racked up five goals and nine assists as a junior and already has four goals and two assists this season. Head Coach Courtney Spleen calls her “a natural defender but a great all-around player who would be a standout anywhere on the field.

“She’s a fantastic leader. She’s always reaching out to her teammates, communicating and trying to help make them and the team collectively better. They listen to her, respect her and see the example she sets.”

A physical force and a slick stick handler, the 17-year-old was born in Philadelphia, but primarily grew up in Germany, living her first years in the Bavarian city of Erlangen and the majority of her life in Bonn, the former capital, where she began playing club field hockey. Klas and her family moved to San Diego in 2018. Her younger sister, Smilla, is a teammate, playing center mid for the Falcons.

With three big non-league contests and then the Avocado West League slate looming, Klas shared time talking about last year’s experience, her hopes for this year’s TP squad and what it’s like playing with her sister.

Q—Looking back on last year’s field hockey season, what are your feelings?

KLAS— At first, we didn’t know if we’d even have a season. I think at the beginning it was a big struggle but we had a strong roster with a lot of club players and a good attitude. After a while, I would say that we adapted well. When we got the opportunity to play, everyone was so positive and worked so hard to win league. That was our goal since there were no CIF playoffs.

Q—Not having CIF to look forward to, how difficult was that? Has it effected the team’s outlook this season?

KLAS—It was very disappointing, particularly because many of the other sports had CIF Championships and we didn’t. We had a good team last year and after we defeated Serra (now Canyon Hills), we definitely felt we could have gotten there. Our coaches did a really good job of making it as enjoyable as possible. There were no cuts and our team was incredibly tight.

This year, we have a lot of new players and our main focus has just been building team connection. That is one of the key steps to becoming the best team you can. Our goal is first to win the Avocado West League and then get the CIF Championship.

As a senior, it is especially important to me since it will be my last chance. After having post-season pulled away from us last season, getting to the final and winning it would mean a lot to everyone. This will also be my last year playing with my sister. I would love to experience winning a championship with her.

Q—Talk about your field hockey background and what is special about having the opportunity to play with your sister?

KLAS—Neither of my parents played field hockey but my father (Christian) played soccer and my mother (Susanne) was a swimmer. I have four sisters and the two that are older than me played field hockey so it was natural that I would follow in their footsteps. We actually had a field hockey club headquartered across the street from our house in Erlangen.

In Germany, playing club, we usually didn’t play together because we would be in different age groups. Now that we have, I’ve found it’s really special. A lot of people tell me that the two of us have a true connection on the field. We kind of intuitively know where the other is and have a strong passing game.

We have always been able to ask each other for honest opinions about everything and I’ve found that things tend to grow from that type of relationship. Growing up, we always did everything together and playing with my best friend is great.

Q—How has your role on the team changed from last year and do you think this team can be as good as last year’s?

KLAS—With so many key players and leaders graduating from last year’s team, I’ve had to be more of a leader and knew I would have to step up more. The coaches have said some things to me but, honestly, even before the team started training, I acted that way naturally and think it’s been a fairly smooth adjustment.

Last year, especially at the end, we had a real good flow and it’s really fun to be part of a team playing on the level we were. We’ve worked hard to this point and I feel we can get this team to that level. The coaches have created a very competitive environment.

It’s not going to be easy, though. The loss to Scripps Ranch was kind of a reality check. It was a reminder that everyone has to be on the same page, playing for each other and giving the same type of effort every game.

You never like to lose but this team is eager, ambitious, receptive and our new players have shown that they want to put in the extra time and effort to get better. I think we know what we can achieve if we keep working.

Q—What do you love about field hockey and playing for Torrey Pines?

KLAS—Whenever I get to practice or a game, in some way, it seems to clear my mind. I don’t think about anything and it all just comes naturally. If I’m having a bad day, I go to practice and my teammates are always there for me and vice-versa. After a while, a team is like a family.

In field hockey, you learn to communicate and learn to rely on other people which is a good thing. I like the game’s movement, it’s a mix of so many different things and that makes it fun.

I love playing with the team at Torrey Pines. In the past, I’ve only been with club teams and when you’re playing with different people, you can learn from them. The coaches here have a lot of knowledge and we have the best connection, on and off the field. It’s always just “one” team and there’s never a bad atmosphere.

I definitely love representing Torrey Pines. Last year our team was ranked No. 1 in California and Torrey Pines was ranked as the No. 1 overall sports program in the state. Knowing that our team, and me as an individual, played a part in that makes me proud.