Tough, national caliber schedules prep LCC-Torrey Pines lacrosse teams for rivalry shoot-out

La Costa Canyon senior star CJ Jones
Ken Grosse

Over the course of four days next week, the boys and girls lacrosse teams from La Costa Canyon and Torrey Pines will square off in games that will likely determine not only the champion of the 2018 Avocado West League but the No. 1 seeding in the CIF Open Division Playoffs which will start May 5 for the girls and May 12 for the boys.

Coach Casey Rector’s LCC girls are ranked No. 1 in San Diego and No. 4 in the West Region (US Lacrosse Magazine). On Tuesday, April 24, they will be hosting a Torrey Pines squad coached by Kaitlin Doucette that is second in San Diego and sixth in the West. The Falcons have won the last two CIF titles but Rector’s Mavericks won the four prior to that and defeated Torrey on its home turf, 10-5, earlier this year.

The two boys’ squads, which will be squaring off three days later (Friday), are equally impressive. Two-time CIF-winning coach Jono Zissi’s Torrey Pines outfit is top-ranked in the section. According to US Lacrosse Magazine it is also first in the West Region and 21st nationally. The Falcons will travel to Carlsbad to face Coach Kevin Cooper’s 2017 CIF champion La Costa Canyon team that comes in second behind Torrey Pines in San Diego and third in the West Region. It will be the only regular season match-up between the two teams.

So which two teams will prevail in these battles of lacrosse heavyweights? The outcomes could be determined in part by Regis Jesuit (Colorado), Potomac (Maryland), Highland Park (Texas), Glenbrook South (Illinois), Darien (Connecticut) and Noble & Greenough (Massachusetts).

Who, you say? All are among a group of national caliber programs from across the country that have played one or more of the four La Costa Canyon/Torrey Pines clubs this year. In all, the four San Diego teams have faced 14 opponents from eight states in the non-league portion of their schedules. The LCC-TP quartet will also have battled 13 California foes from outside of San Diego before the regular season is concluded.

Why are all of these “intersectional” match-ups taking place? Although it’s probably too simplistic an answer, in large part, it is to give themselves a better chance of beating each other. There’s an above average possibility that these four teams will collide in their respective mid-May CIF title clashes, meaning there are few local rivals who can provide the type of competition they’ll face when they go head-to-head.

“The stronger the schedule the better you get,” says Rector, whose Mavericks’ only loss came in overtime against the Potomac School, the nation’s 16th-ranked team from McLean, VA (which, by the way, has more than 10 out-of-state schools on its schedule) in late March. “I’d rather be 10-10 with a stronger schedule than go undefeated against a weak schedule.”

Cooper’s perspective is similar. “We try and play as challenging a schedule as we can,” he said. “Particularly in a year like this where we are younger than usual, we want to challenge them early on and not end up having their first time against a tough opponent come in the post-season. It’s been successful for us and we plan on playing Regis Jesuit every year they’ll come here.”

The various coaches also see the experiences as good for their teams’ lacrosse “education,” confidence and a chance to see different systems and learn from them. The CIF uses rankings from LAX Power to determine its own seedings so, much like the RPI system utilized by major NCAA sports, a good loss is often better than a bad win, making the top teams’ scheduling philosophies logical. Making it all come together is not quite as complicated as it might appear. LCC, Torrey Pines and a few other premier local teams often work together to make these high quality encounters possible.

“We’re fortunate,” said Rector. “We’ve developed a strong reputation, teams want to play us and for several it’s an excuse to get to San Diego. Some of the teams here help by looping our visiting teams into their schedules so that they can get multiple games when they’re here.” Potomac, Glenbrook South and Carondelet (Concord, Calif.) all squared off against the La Costa Canyon and Torrey Pines girls this season and Regis Jesuit played the two boys squads.

Which brings us back to the ultimate reason for the far-reaching non-league schedules. Both of next week’s LCC-Torrey match-ups should be “must see” events for prep sports fans. Although Rector’s charges prevailed relatively easily when the two female rivals skirmished on March 7, she knows better than to expect a replay when they face off Tuesday.

“My team showed up, had a couple of games under its belt and may have wanted it more in March,” said Rector, alluding to the fact that at the time, Torrey Pines owned a six-game winning streak over the Mavericks with two of those wins coming in CIF play. “I think both teams have gotten better and from looking at the comparative scores, you can see it’s going to be much more even this time.”

La Costa Canyon is led offensively by the senior tandem of CJ Jones and Tessa Bass. Junior Sarah McLean has provided ample support and the recent return of senior Lina Savage from an injury has added a significant new option to the Maverick attack. Junior Alex Walling, who played her freshman season at Torrey Pines, has been solid and at times spectacular in goal. Defender Lexi Likins has been a clutch performer up-and-down the field.

The goal is also a strength for the Falcons with Duke-bound senior Sophia Lerose protecting the net and spearheading the defense. On the other end of the field, Kelli McKinnon, Mia Kohn and Arielle Shahrabain have been mainstays in an improving offense that has scored 14 or more goals in seven-of-its-last-eight games.

Zissi’s Torrey Pines boys have a senior-laden squad that he feels is ready to do good things. “Over the years, I’ve learned that teams are typically only as strong as their senior class,” he said. “We’ve got a good one.”

The Falcons are also incredibly balanced offensively. “We have 10-12 guys scoring points every game,” said Zissi, “which, from an offensive standpoint is kind of a coaches’ dream. It makes us pretty hard to scout.”

Torrey’s top scorer is attacker Alex Pistorious and Zissi calls senior midfielder Ryan Ramirez, his team captain, “the lifeblood of our team.” The Falcon defense is anchored by senior North Carolina commit Evan Egan.

Cooper’s LCC squad might be a bit of an underdog in this one but the Mavs are San Diego’s second-ranked team as well as the reigning CIF crown holders. The third-year head coach may have lost 9-of-10 starters from that 2017 team but had a pair of big pieces in his arsenal to rebuild around. Senior Isaac Smith is among the best prep faceoff men you’ll find and once the Mavericks have possession, junior JJ Sillstrop might be as good at finding the back of the net as any player in San Diego. The 5-foot-9 lefty has been LCC’s top scorer the past two seasons. Junior Colin O’Connor, carrying the long stick, has stepped into a more prominent midfield role.

Zissi, reflective of his coaching colleagues, is smart enough to know that nothing can be taken for granted in this series. “This is potentially our most talented Torrey Pines team but in a rivalry game like this, that doesn’t matter,” he said. “In my eight previous years, I feel like this has never been more than a 3-4 point game, regardless of the expectation coming in. I know our team cares a lot about winning the league championship and LCC is the biggest team in the way.” He also knows it’s special, even by standard rivalry measures.

“I tell our players how lucky they are to have a situation like the one we have with LCC,” continued Zissi. “It’s always good and competitive and goes way beyond lacrosse.

“There are not many schools playing at such a high level that year-in and year-out can say they have an opportunity like we do with LCC.” It’s a pretty good deal for local fans too.

Game Days:

Tuesday, April 24 Girls Lacrosse Torrey Pines @ La Costa Canyon 7 p.m.

Friday, April 27 Boys Lacrosse Torrey Pines @ La Costa Canyon 6 p.m.