Torrey Pines’ Ryland Roach returns, wins CIF lacrosse championship following intricate brain surgery

Ryland Roach
Ryland Roach returned to play for Torrey Pines High School’s lacrosse team, six months after undergoing intricate brain surgery.
(Anna Scipione)

A 3-hour surgery — and an excruciating 6-month wait — led to emotional return to Torrey Pines’ boys lacrosse team


Ryland Roach dodged a defender, switched his stick from his left side to the right and let loose with a shot to the bottom right corner of the net.

The ball settled into the net for Torrey Pines’ first goal of the Falcons’ 2023 boys lacrosse season.

Sitting in their seats in the stands at Coronado High School on that March day, Roach’s parents fought back tears. They watched Roach’s teammate, Matthew Mannarino, run into the goal to retrieve the ball.

To those not in the know, the reaction in the Falcons’ season opener might have seemed a bit over the top for a team that would go on to win its fifth straight CIF-San Diego Section Open Division title. What the outsiders couldn’t have known was that eight months ago, there was fear Roach would ever live a normal active life — let alone play the physical game he loved.

“As a parent,” said Brandon Roach, Ryland’s father, “I was over the moon that he was able to get back on the field, playing with his teammates.”

Roach earned all-league honors last year as a sophomore, scoring 35 goals, second on the team. But late in the season, he suffered three bouts of searing pain that started at the base of his head, shot down through his neck and into his shoulder blades.

One was caused by a sneeze. The other two came after the torque of firing shots created a whiplash effect.

“It was burning, stinging,” said Roach, “almost like a knife cutting into me.”

Roach underwent multiple X-rays, MRIs and CT scans. Neurosurgeons discovered that Roach was suffering from Chiari malformation, a congenital condition that is caused when the lower part of the brain descends into the spinal canal. Fluid can accumulate in the spine, causing compression and damage to the spinal cord.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. For elite lacrosse players like Roach, the summer before their junior year is a time for national tournaments and showcase events. Strong performances may lead to college scholarships.

Roach turned 17 on July 4. A day later, doctors told him that to stop all physical activity before an injury caused paralysis.

“I’d probably say I was shocked, definitely nervous,” said Roach. “I was scared. I’d had a few surgeries, but brain surgery, that (takes) it to a different level. It felt surreal, like you’re in a dream.”

On Aug. 24, Roach underwent three-hour brain surgery. A portion of the covering protecting his brain was removed and the position of his brain adjusted to restore the flow of fluid between his brain and spinal canal.

Ryland Roach underwent brain surgery on Aug. 24.
(Roach family)

Then came a six-month wait to ensure the surgery was successful. For the first three months, Roach couldn’t do anything more physical than walk and lift five pounds.

“He was like a caged animal,” said his mother, Kimber.

Roach’s weight dropped from about 205 pounds to 170.

After three months, doctors cleared Roach to resume light physical activity.

“He kept an outstanding attitude, that he would do whatever it took to get back to lacrosse, his passion,” said Brandon Roach. “He never lost sight of that.”

Doctors cleared Roach for full activity just in time for the start of Torrey Pines’ practices. Scoring Torrey Pines’ first goal of the season on his first shot was like a scene from a Hollywood movie.

“I think for him, in that moment, it was probably a lot to uncover, probably so many emotions,” said Mannarino, who has known Roach since kindergarten.

Mannarino was quick to grab the ball out of the net.

“I wanted to get that ball for him,” he said. “I wanted him to have it forever.”

Ryland Roach
Ryland Roach was cleared to play lacrosse again just as Torrey Pines starting practicing.
(Roach family)

As it turned out, the ball eventually was lost. Mannarino tossed it to an injured player on the sideline. A referee said a ball was needed to resume the game. The injured player tossed the ball back on the field and it was never retrieved.

But Roach would score more important goals later in the season. In the Open Division semifinals against arch-rival La Costa Canyon, Roach scored the first goal of the game, a key goal at the halftime buzzer and four goals in all in a 10-9 win.

“I was thinking this might be our last game of the season,” said Roach. “You might as well put it all out there and see what happens.”

Dr. Gerald Grant, who performed the surgery on Roach, said the teen “was amazing and patient and now he’s playing.”

“I want to give these kids hope,” said Grant, a professor and chair of neurosurgery at Duke University School of Medicine. Other athletes can see that if there’s a Chiari diagnosis, there is hope, there is treatment. These kids can do well.

“I hope one day he plays Duke lacrosse.”

Asked what he learned through the experience, Roach said: “No matter how big the challenge is in front of you, it’s about how you respond. I learned there’s going to be more challenges in life. If you have a good mindset, surround yourself with good people, you can come out better on the other side.”