Torrey Pines girls look to re-establish footing among San Diego soccer elite

Senior Ellie Davidson will be one of Torrey Pines' top goal-scoring threats.
Senior Ellie Davidson will be one of Torrey Pines’ top goal-scoring threats.
(Ken Grosse)

The Torrey Pines girls soccer team got a little bit of everything at the season-opening Butch Lee Memorial Tournament, hosted last week by Cathedral Catholic. Two late goals against resulted in a 3-1 loss to Orange County power San Clemente in the opener, followed by a 7-0 rout of St. Margaret’s (San Juan Capistrano) and then a 1-1 draw with Bonita.

“Overall I’m pleased, there were some good performances,” said 11th-year head coach Martyn Hansford. “Even in the game we lost, we played well. It was just disappointing not getting into the quarterfinals because we would have had a chance to get some extra games against top notch teams. Without the final 3:40 of the San Clemente game, we would have been there.”

Falcons' veteran head coach Martyn Hansford has high hopes for his 2022-23 squad.
Falcons’ veteran head coach Martyn Hansford has high hopes for his 2022-23 squad.
(Ken Grosse)

Two of the team’s primary focuses going in were establishing defensive shape and scrutinizing the patterns of play—how players move without the ball, separately and as a unit. Hansford awarded strong marks in both areas.

“I thought we reacted at the ball and gave up relatively few quality chances which was pleasing,” he said. “Offensively, we’re still trying to figure out what system will fit us best and what we saw shows that we should be very flexible and have a lot of good options.”

While a 1-1-1 record may not seem exciting in light of the school’s storied past in the sport, given recent history the relative stability is probably welcoming to Hansford. That’s because Torrey Pines comes into the 2022-23 campaign on the heels of a season that has to rank among the most unusual in section annals .

After his first nine years as head coach, Hansford’s resume with the Falcons was sparkling. Two CIF Open Division Championships, nine consecutive winning seasons, all resulting in a playoff berth in San Diego’s top division and a cumulative record of 155-45-35.

It looked to be business as usual in 2021-22 when Torrey Pines was accorded a Top 10 pre-season ranking but that was about the last thing that went as expected. Every season has its challenges, but Hansford’s side was hit by a flood of obstacles that left it grasping vainly for answers following a 4-12-4 regular season. Yet, after missing out on the Open bracket, Torrey slipped into the CIF Division I field, where, somehow, some way, as the 10th seed, the Falcons righted the ship.

Torrey Pines senior Stella Mikolajewski
Torrey Pines senior Stella Mikolajewski
(Ken Grosse)

They reeled off victories over Mission Hills (4-3), West Hills (1-0) and Mt. Carmel (3-0) before bouncing back from a two-goal deficit to stun top-seeded Eastlake, 4-2, in the championship match.

Forward Ellie Davidson, now a senior on this year’s Torrey Pines squad, looks back on the paradox of last winter’s regular and post-season results in wonderment. “The regular season was difficult and shocking for me personally because we had such a strong, successful team the year before,” said Davidson, alluding to a unit that reached the CIF Open Division title game before losing to La Costa Canyon. “And based on how the other part of our season had gone, I was honestly surprised after we won the first two CIF games.

“In the process, though, I saw a spark develop and a renewed motivation. I definitely knew we had it in us from the beginning but we just needed to execute correctly. “

To Hansford, a man for whom the glass is always half full, the explanation was simple. “It was just injuries,” he said. “I mean we graduated some very good players but we literally had six ACL injuries in the club season, prior to starting our training.

“Then our back-up goalkeeper tore her ACL and our starting keeper was knocked out by a knee to the head. We had a 5-foot-2 field player in goal for a good stretch. She did a great job and our team played hard and well but the injury situation overall was really the story of our season.”

There were clearly a lot of lessons that could be drawn from 2021-22 and applied to the current season but Hansford said his approach has remained unchanged.

“There was nothing wrong with our approach,” he insisted. “We’re Torrey Pines, we’ve got a philosophy, we’ve got principles of play and before last year we were the only team that had made it to every Open Division tournament.

“Getting back to the Open may be more difficult because last year’s record has dropped us down league-wise, which will hurt our strength of schedule, but we’ll take the path we’re given and get after it.”

Davidson, one of 11 returning players, does feel that last year’s experience has brought about some subtle adjustments this time around, meant to assure that last year’s outcomes are not repeated.

“We need to have strong leadership, coaches and players, from the top on down with a lot of energy and motivation,” said Davidson. “Right off the bat, coach was very clear about how every practice, every game, every moment needed to be of the highest intensity.

“There needed to be no doubt that everyone understand the standards that have been established. We each have a role and everyone has to be ready to work hard at making each other better.”

Hansford has a strong nucleus to build from. Of the 11 returners, six were consistent starters last year, including team co-captain Davidson. A speedy Dartmouth-bound left side forward who Hansford likens, stylistically, to former French star Thierry Henry, Davidson was among the team’s top goal scorers as a junior. She has three already this season and is described by her coach as “a bold, talented, confident player who comes inside and makes things happen.”

Three other seniors, holding center midfielder Emma Levy, defender Preslea Wilson and forward Stella Mikolajewsi also figure to play key roles. Hansford complimented Levy, who played all last year with a cast on her arm, saying, “with Emma, it’s stop, deny, get the ball and get us moving—she’s got great character.”

As for Wilson, Hansford sees her primary role as an outside back while saying, “she can really play wherever we need a good player. She has gone to another level this year and should be playing Division I soccer next year.” Down, 3-2, in last year’s first CIF contest, Hansford moved her up top and she responded by scoring both the equalizing and go-ahead goals.

Mikolajewski, while certainly a good player is, more importantly, the type of person every coach wants in terms of heart, effort and team-first mentality. Hansford says, “Stella can be very inspirational on the field, her first tackle is always a firm one. She can run forever and has a rapid change of acceleration. She could probably be a defender but has so much to offer in the final third.”

Another forward, junior Laurel “LoGo” Gonzalez should also be a standout. Pulled up from the junior varsity last year, she was a big playoff contributor, scoring a second half hat trick to help lift the Falcons to victory in the CIF Championship game.

Both Davidson and Hansford envision positive things come February and post-season 2023. “I think the goal we all have is to make it to the Open Division Playoffs,” said Davidson. “We expect that of ourselves and last year was a disappointment in that respect.

“I’m honestly really optimistic. I think we have a lot of potential. There’s a very competitive atmosphere around the team and that’s important. Everyone is pushing to really become better, individually and collectively.”

Hansford had a brief, somewhat broad response when asked to assess his team’s strengths and weaknesses but without prompting was quick to pivot into his program’s attributes from a bigger picture perspective.

“Coming into the season, truthfully, I feel great about everything—the way we responded to last year’s adversity says so much about this program,” he said. “We’ve had very strong freshmen and sophomore groups the last two years, we’ve got a new coaching staff that has great chemistry and I’m very excited about the way we’re maturing.“There are a lot of young players who we need to coach up to the varsity level, but overall, we’ve got the tools to get the job done. I love winning and our ambition is to have a great season, but we also want to make some great memories for these players.

“The character of this team is phenomenal. I think the word ‘special’ gets over-used but this is a special group. I love going to practice. It’s like Christmas to me.”

If Hansford and Co. have their way, when the CIF Playoffs start, it might just be Christmas in February.