Torrey Pines looks to be in the thick of CIF Open Division baseball chase

Right hander Grayson Bonanno is part of a deep Falcon pitching staff.
Right hander Grayson Bonanno is part of a deep Falcon pitching staff.
(Ken Grosse)

Without a doubt, any conversation concerning the top overall high school athletic programs in San Diego would include Torrey Pines. Since the school was opened in 1974, Falcon teams have captured over 200 CIF Championships in 21 different sports.

Somewhat surprisingly, just two of those titles have come in baseball—the 1994 D-II crown under Coach Craig Scoggins and the 2018 Open Division with Coach Kirk McCaskill. Given the rich prep history of the sport in San Diego (dating back to Ted Williams and beyond) and the bevy of talent regularly coming out of North County, that figure is even more baffling.

If current Torrey Pines Head Coach Tommy Simis has anything to say about it, that number is going to start rising—maybe as early as this spring. Now in his third year at the Falcon helm, San Diego native Simis knows what he’s talking about when it comes to section championships, having won a pair himself as a player at Poway (2006 and 2008).

Second baseman Chase Klemke is part of an all-junior infield.
Second baseman Chase Klemke is part of an all-junior infield.
(Ken Grosse)

He’s racked up a 48-23 record in his two-plus seasons at TP, winning back-to-back Coastal League crowns and last year’s CIF Division II SoCal Regional Championship. Despite those flashy stats, success in San Diego CIF Open Division play has been harder to come by. Torrey went two-and-out in its first try under Simis and last year was ousted by league rival La Costa Canyon, one win short of the final. Simis believes he’ll have a contending club again in 2023.

Third-year head coach Tommy Simis.
Third-year head coach Tommy Simis.
(Ken Grosse)

“We should be right there in the thick of it,” said Simis, whose team is off to a 4-1 start. “We’ve got extremely strong pitching and are very good defensively.

“We were a powerful offensive team last year but we’re more of a scrappy group this season. We’re going to need to do the little things, compete every game and not take an inning off. If we do that, we’ll be there in the end.”

The pitching staff features front end talent as well as depth. The three-man starting rotation begins with 6-3, UC Davis-bound senior righthander Grayson Bonanno, a confident, bulldog-type with a dominant slider and solid fastball.

As good as he is, Bonanno may not even be the top pitcher on the team. Junior righty Peyton Rodgers, a San Diego State commit, has hit 93 mph with his fastball and backs that up with a wicked slider and a developing change-up.

Junior shortstop Thomas Maher is one of Torrey Pines' top hitters.
Junior shortstop Thomas Maher is one of Torrey Pines’ top hitters.
(Ken Grosse)

Steady senior Chase Blease rounds out the starting unit. Another big, competitive right hander, senior Nick Dunlop, is on the mend from Tommy John surgery and figures to be a stalwart out of the bullpen with his fastball/curve combo. Bonanno is high on the pitching contingent but knows it’s going to take more to reach the county’s top rung.

“Our depth is definitely our No. 1 attribute pitching-wise—there are so many games in a season that any team that wants to win a championship needs it,” said Bonanno, who recorded six wins without a loss and posted a 1.07 ERA as a junior. “We have a great bond, are all good friends and do everything together—it’s nice to compete in that kind of environment.

“But it’s going to take every aspect of our team working together and I’m 100% confident the offense will pick us up when we have the inevitable tough games. Top-to-bottom, I think we have the best bats in San Diego and multiple guys who just have that clutch factor.”

Senior right fielder Gavin Strup.
Senior right fielder Gavin Strup.
(Ken Grosse)

The first thing that stands out in terms of position players is the present (and future) impact of an all-junior infield. Up the middle is a set of slick fielding, early D-1 recruits, second baseman Chase Klemke (Stanford) and shortstop Thomas Maher (UC Santa Barbara). Simis calls Klemke “the table setter” and when he gets on base and can use his speed, the rest of the Falcon offense is typically at its best. The most seasoned player, Maher, was on the roster as a freshman and started every game as a sophomore. He provides a big bat in the three-hole with power to all fields.

Both corner infielders, third baseman Jace Barajas (son of 17-year major leaguer and former Padres interim manager Rod Barajas) and lanky first sacker Reece Dixon could get Division I offers before their prep careers are over.

When he’s not pitching, the fleet-footed Rodgers anchors the outfield in center. He’s flanked by sophomore Aidan Stroot in left and hard-working senior Gavin Strup, one of Torrey’s top early-season hitters in ’23, in right.

Thomas Maher’s brother, Dolan, the Falcons’ lone freshman, could be a future star at catcher.

The overall make-up of this year’s squad changed considerably with the graduation of key contributors like pitchers Zak Isaacman and Erik Van Valkenburg, catcher Junior Barajas, first baseman Cole Wilson, outfielders Ryan Flather and Liam Kelly and energy guy Brian Jackal. The intangibles that group provided are something Simis is still waiting to see develop with the current group.

“We’re kind of missing the presence of that one or two chemistry guys who are locked in, day-in and day-out,” said Simis. “That leadership really solidified us last season.

“On this year’s team, we’ve got great players who are good people but they tend to fall on the more quiet, humble side. There are a few guys who I think could step up but we’ll have to see if that happens.”

Bonanno is one who might fill that kind of role but also has his own take on how this team will handle it.

“I, of course, would love to do anything that will help the team, but we all need to be leaders,” he said.

“I’m not going to be my best every day and others are going to occasionally be off their A-game.“We all have to be ready when others are down, pick them up. We talk about it, especially the seniors, and at the end of the day, we’ve come to the agreement that we all need to provide leadership and accountability.”

With the unusually heavy local rains causing a low volume of pre-season games, the Falcons will be relatively untested jumping into the brunt of their schedule. They open the Coastal League season next week with a pair of games against Rancho Bernardo and also participate in the annual Lion’s Club Tournament beginning April 3. Simis says his team prioritizes retaining its status as league champions.

“We’re in what most would consider, year-in and year-out, the toughest league in San Diego,” said Simis.

“Winning the Coastal League is a really big steppingstone for reaching our other goals. “We take great pride in the fact that we’re two-time defending champions and winning in this league makes you comfortable and confident that you can win anything.” Which brings us back to the San Diego CIF Open Division Playoffs. Simis has no hesitation when it comes to the challenge or what his team needs to do to reach the pinnacle.

“All the other things we’ve accomplished are great,” he said. “but winning CIF is the main goal for us.

“The pieces are there to give us an opportunity. Our pitching and defense are as good as anyone in the county Knowing those two will be there, the one thing is hitting—timely, two-strike hitting, getting guys in scoring position and capitalizing. If we get hitting, we could be great.”