Falcon field hockey team closes rough week with big win; CIF title still the focus
A basic test of a team’s potential is how it handles adversity . Early last week, the Torrey Pines field hockey team tasted trouble, in the form of back-to-back 2-1 losses to Cathedral Catholic and La Costa Canyon. It marked their first consecutive defeats since 2018. More important than any of that, on Friday the Falcons proved they have the grit and resilience to meet the challenge those outcomes presented by knocking off defending CIF Open Division champion Canyon Hills, 2-1,handing the Rattlers first loss of the season.
The victory upped the Falcons’ record to 3-2 and confirmed that they are still legitimate CIF contenders. Fifth-year Head Coach Courtney Spleen didn’t deny the significance of the result.
“It was really important, especially coming off two early season losses,” said Spleen, whose clubs racked up a cumulative record of 86-12 in her first four years and finished second in the last two CIF Open Division tournaments (losing the title game of both in the final minutes). “For a team not used to losing, we were facing an unfamiliar situation and with a three-game week, it would have been easy to come into that Canyon Hills game low on confidence.
“The biggest lesson from those two losses is that we have to play together and can’t underestimate any opponent the rest of the season. I think the response showed how badly they want to win.”
It’s also a reflection of the team’s experience and depth. Eight of the Falcons’ 11 starters are seniors and two others saw substantial playing time in 2022.
Three seniors—Avery Austin, Lucie Schroeder and Bella Tassara—work the front line. Austin, who collected 21 goals as a junior, is Torrey’s top goal scorer to date with four.
In the midfield, All-CIF star Smilla Klas is now a starter in the Ivy League at Harvard but two other fourth-year players, Sophie Rosenblum and Hayden Roddis, are back to anchor that unit, which includes junior Sydney Meltzer and sophomore Morgan Christie. The steady Rosenblum has a team best four assists, two coming in the win over Canyon Hills, and Meltzer trails only Austin with three goals.
Goalie Kara Dunlop is just a sophomore but got one start last year and has the benefit of an all-senior defensive unit in front of her. The trio features center back Kyla Byer who is flanked by Abby Raysman and Alex Silver. The Falcons, who gave up a sterling 0.7 goals per game in 2022, have surrendered 1.2 through the first five contests.
“Overall, our speed and fitness is the highest it’s been the last couple of years,” said Spleen, “and one of the advantages of having such a veteran group is that we’re able to do more technical and tactical things that I normally wouldn’t be able to implement.”
One thing that has stayed the same is a difficult pre-season schedule. Torrey Pines will face rugged opponents from not only San Diego but elsewhere in the state and even nationally. Spleen subscribes to the axiom that the best way to prepare a team for championship competition is by playing the best opponents possible during the regular season. While this athletic version of the “iron sharpens iron” concept has worked well for Torrey Pines it’s also a double-edged sword that can lead to predicaments like the two losses the Falcons absorbed last week. Spleen sees positives to draw even from the downside of the equation.
“A big part of having a tough schedule is to challenge ourselves to get better,” she said. “You don’t learn anything from winning all the time—those two losses last week helped show the girls what we really need to work on.” She saw the preamble to the Canyon Hills win in the second half against LCC two days earlier and is bullish on what’s ahead of her team.
“After the LCC game, I was definitely frustrated,” said Spleen. “We had a lot of opportunities, 10 corners, over 20 shots on goal, we just couldn’t put one away.
“But I was happy with the way the girls hung together, really picked it up in the second half and carried it over to the next game. I know they’re super-motivated to do well and know if they keep showing up, everything is still there for the taking.”
Q&A with KYLA BYER
One of three co-captains and 12 seniors on an ultra-experienced Torrey Pines Field Hockey team, defender Kyla Byer is hoping to help elevate the Falcons to the CIF Open Division Championship in 2023 after falling one game short the past two seasons.
The 5-foot-8 San Diego native, who started with the sport in middle school, handles the center back position for Torrey Pines after playing in one of the outside slots her previous two years on the varsity.
Despite playing against a top flight schedule, the Falcons have surrendered just six goals in their first four contests this fall.
Fifth-year Head Coach Courtney Spleen believes Byer has the right combination of skills to be successful in one of the key positions on the field.
“Kyla consistently sets the kind of example that you want your top players to provide,” says Spleen without hesitation. “She shows up every game and every practice and always gives her all.
“She plays her position so well. She’s competent, level-headed, a great communicator on the field, which is important at center back, and is always working to get better. This year her stick skills and poise on the ball have clearly improved.”
Just three weeks into the current season, the 17-year-old Byer, who sports a 4.14 GPA at Torrey Pines, took the time to share her thoughts on a variety of topics, including her introduction to field hockey, the responsibilities of her position and what it will take to earn the program’s first-ever CIF Open Division Championship.
Q—You played some soccer and basketball when you were younger, how did you get and stay involved with field hockey?
BYER—A family friend who coached my sister’s soccer team and had a daughter who played field hockey told me he thought I would be good at the sport. I decided to give it a shot and fell in love with it. I first played at Carmel Valley Middle School and decided to join a club team (“it was a lot more intense”) in eighth grade which is where I really developed some fundamental skills.
I think in the beginning I really liked it because of how hard it was. It was so unconventional compared to other sports and I felt I had an opportunity to grow and get somewhere with it, partly because of the difficulty it took to master the skills.
I decided to play in high school and also being around club coaches, who had all played in college, was nice since it kind of gave me a look at opportunities that might be out there.
Q—How would you describe the responsibilities of your position?
BYER—A lot of playing center back has to do with directing people on the field since you typically have the best overall view and can see where people should be. There’s nobody but the goalie behind you. You need to be vocal and make the right decisions on the ball. You’re also called on to take free hits so you’ve got to be strong in that aspect.
Q—Does your personality fit the position?
BYER—I think so. We have a super competitive team and I’m a very competitive person. I’m very vocal on the field as well and always have my head fully in the game. I don’t like to take as many risks as some players, I’m a little more conservative and I like to distribute the ball—all those things fit well into my role.
Q—Is having a leadership role on the team, like captain, something you’re comfortable with?
BYER—I would say so. I feel I’m a natural leader, it’s just my personality. I’m outgoing and tend to be sociable. Once I found my confidence in the sport, I started to show that side of myself on the field.
I really struggled with my confidence when I was younger. It started with a bad coaching experience in another sport. I wasn’t very good, never understood the sport and was very scared all the time. It didn’t help that I had coaches who were hard on me—I dreaded practice and felt I couldn’t do anything right.
Initially, I took that mentality to field hockey but started to re-gain my confidence with good coaching. I also read some books, like Kobe Bryant’s “Mamba Mentality” and have taken some tips from them, particularly in the area of having a short memory and moving on to the “next play” immediately instead of spending time on something that’s already happened.
Q—How is this year’s Torrey Pines team different from the others you’ve played on?
BYER—We’re so experienced, have so many seniors. I think we all know the game well, are all fairly athletic, desperately want to win CIF and all want to lead by example and be role models for the younger girls.
We play very well together, partially because we’ve grown our skills together. We feel comfortable pushing each other to be the best that we can be. There’s nobody half trying or giving up easily.
Q—What’s it like playing for your coach, Courtney Spleen, and how has she impacted your game?
BYER—I love Courtney and think she’s an amazing coach. She’s intense, expects so much out of you and has pushed me to be a better player and person. She’s so passionate, so competitive and wants it just as bad as we do. It’s not unusual for her to jump into a drill just to get the intensity up—it’s inspiring to see that from your coach.
Q—What would the average person be surprised to know about field hockey?
BYER—Usually, people are surprised when they find you can’t touch the ball with your foot, that you can only touch the ball with one side of your stick and there is no offsides.
I think it’s a lot harder than people would expect. You need good fitness, agility, the ability to stay low and have the right form or you’re going to hurt your back. The sticks are short and you have to use your quad muscles to bend instead of your back. It seems like we’re doing “wall sits” all the time to develop the muscles in our legs.
Q—Animals are one of your interests outside of field hockey and school. What can you tell us about that?
BYER—I love animals—I’m a very big animal person. I have two dogs, Olive (who’s currently pregnant) and Lenny. I love to hang out with them. They’re chihuahua mixes who act like the stereotype when they meet new people but they’re super-loving once you get to know them and have cute personalities.
I’m also involved with the New Life Charitable Foundation which is an organization that aids and saves helpless and vulnerable dogs in Southern California. Their San Diego foster house is located in Lakeside. They bring them in and give them a new life. I’ve volunteered at some of the adoption events they’ve held around San Diego and am working with the team on a donation drive and an outing where the team can volunteer at the foster house.
Q—What’s ahead for you after this year?
BYER—Academics are super important to me and next year I’m going to attend University of Rochester in New York. I’m planning to major in political science and maybe focus on international relations. I can see myself working in some type of government position or with a non-profit. I’m also going to play NCAA Division III field hockey and am really excited about that.
Q—What do you envision for the Torrey Pines team the rest of this season?
BYER—We want to come back to the CIF Open Division Playoffs with a vengeance—that’s what we all have in mind. There are so many of us that went through the heartbreak and devastation of losing in the championship game the last two years. We’re really determined that we’re not going to let that happen this year.
With that in mind, last week was a good wake up call. We can never walk into a game expecting to win. Being a top team is great but reputation means nothing, you have to perform. We were able to put those two losses behind us, played very well as a team and are now looking ahead.
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