Graduation marks end of an exceptional athletic era at La Costa Canyon
Since opening its doors in 1996, La Costa Canyon High School has enjoyed a spectacular run of athletic prowess, delivered by a revolving cast of young athletes. The 113 CIF team titles racked up by the Mavericks is fifth best in the section, ahead of many rival schools that have been in existence for significantly longer periods of time.
Over the past four years that tradition has been maintained, if not augmented, during the tenure of the class of 2019. Spearheaded by a quintet of generational-type performers who have been remarkable not only via on-the-field exploits, but simultaneous team success as well as their depth of character and academic proficiency.
Even though surrounded by a deep, accomplished group of 2019 classmates, the fantastic five--Kristin Fahy (cross country/track & field), Karson Lippert (football/track & field), Rachel Rhee (swimming), JJ Sillstrop (boys lacrosse) and Kento Yamawaki (boys golf)—rise above the crowd.
Collectively, their teams have captured 10 CIF championships and they have accounted for 16 CIF individual championships. Their average GPA is 3.90 and all will be attending NCAA Division I schools next year while competing in their sports.
During her tenure at LCC, veteran Athletic Director Kari DiGiulio has witnessed her share of championships, incredible performances and quality players, but even she regards the cream of this current graduating crop ‘special’—in terms of both numbers and achievement.
“It’s easy to get caught up and forget how difficult it is to have the kind of success that virtually all of our teams have on a regular basis,’ she said. “This particular group of athletes has been amazing and very unique in the fact that all have had individual, as well as team success at the highest level.
“The kind I don’t think I’ve seen in a long time. You could make a strong argument that each of the five is the very best of their sport in San Diego. A lot of that comes down to incredible coaching—we are blessed to have a great coaching staff made up of individuals who are in it for the right reasons and so many who are on campus full-time.”
While many of those coaches are undoubtedly wrestling with the dilemma of how to replace the uncommon talents that are departing after graduation, now is a great time for the LCC family and community to celebrate the good fortune of having witnessed the special era now completed.
Here’s a quick look back (and ahead) at La Costa Canyon’s five senior stars.
A three-time CIF cross country individual champion (plus part of four straight CIF XC team champions) and the gold medalist in the CIF 3,200m as a sophomore, junior and senior, Stanford-bound Kristin Fahy was the dominant figure in local prep distance running for the past three years and has done it with a smile on her face.
According to her coach, Bill Vice, “consistency, persistence and fortitude” were what made her great. “She never dwelled specifically on winning but she had the desire to be the best she was going to be and if she did that, she would win,” said Vice. “I often look back and think just how blessed we’ve been to have had so many talented runners over the years at LCC—she’s probably the best one and that’s saying a lot.”
Fahy, whose older brothers, Darren and Steve, were also Maverick running stars, concluded her high school career with individual CIF State Championships in both cross county and track & field, setting a section record of 10:11.38 in the 3,200m at the latter event in May. In January, she was named the Gatorade California Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.
Discussion about two-sport athlete Karson Lippert often circles around “what might have been.” Quite likely the finest pure athlete in the group, his brilliance was interrupted too often by an ill-fated string of injuries. But the results he posted when healthy were certainly extraordinary and watching him live meant keeping your eyes open at all times because something breathtaking could occur at any moment.
Speed is the 5-11, 170-lb. Lippert’s calling card but on the football field, he excelled on both sides of the ball as well as special teams and had a toughness that was never in question. His final two football seasons were cut short by ankle and knee injuries respectively, the latter effectively ruining his senior track campaign as well, and a severe hamstring pull in the 2018 CIF Prelims kept him out of the finals where he would have been favored in two events.
His sophomore track season included winning the CIF 400m and finishing second in the 200m while also being part of two top four relay squads. He blazed to a 46.91 while placing second in the 400m at the CIF State Championships and had a best of 21.28 in the 200m, posted in the 2018 Avocado West finals.
On the gridiron, he’d piled up over 1,000 all-purpose yards in less than six games before going down his junior year against Mission Hills and was the catalyst for the 2018 Mavericks’ 5-0 start and No. 1 CIF ranking prior to tearing his ACL vs. Oceanside (the team went 1-4 after losing Lippert).
“Karson’s one of the best people I’ve coached in my life,” said LCC Head Football Coach Sean Sovacool. “His athletic ability was kind of unprecedented but he’s a phenomenal person—humble, selfless, family-oriented and just made everyone around him better.
“He did everything we wanted and it was amazing how, as a high school kid, he was able to handle everything that was thrown at him.”
Strength, versatility and a relentless consistency put Rachel Rhee at the very pinnacle of San Diego prep swimming for four years. She won her two primary events—the 50 freestyle and 200 freestyle—all four years at the CIF Championships.
The 5-foot-11 Rhee, who will start at UCLA next fall, holds the San Diego section record in the 50 freestyle (23.03) and was also part of four LCC CIF gold medal relay squads during her career. The Maverick girls won the 2019 CIF girls D-II team title, LCC’s first ever in swimming & diving, and during Rhee’s four years never finished lower than third in the team standings.
Her coach, Patty Mackle, says the reserved Rhee has the capability of handling just about anything in the pool. “Rachel is so well-rounded, she could do well in virtually any event we have her swim,” says Head Swimming Coach Patty Mackle. “She has the gift of talent but she’s also so dedicated and that makes her special.”
Although an all-around stand out, lacrosse star JJ Sillstrop is first and foremost an offensive juggernaut. Many were the nights where the Mavericks’ game plan appeared to be ‘get him the ball, watch him score, establish early that he could do that whenever he wanted and open the field up for his teammates, leading to an LCC victory.’
Facing regional/national caliber schedules, La Costa Canyon was 68-20-1 during Sillstrop’s four years and he won All-CIF and U.S. Lacrosse All-American honors three times each. The Mavs reached the CIF finals twice, winning the section championship in 2017, and were in the semi-finals the other two seasons. Additionally, he was the only California player named to the Under Armour All-American team and the only player from the state asked to try out for the USA U-19 team.
“I don’t think you can ever expect to have a player like JJ come through your program and we probably never will again,” said Maverick head man Kevin Cooper. “For me to come in as head coach and have him here, as just a sophomore, it was like a dream come true, he’s probably the best high school player I’ve ever seen.
“Obviously, he’s an incredibly talented player but he also bring all the little things that most people will never see—he’s a great leader, a great teammate and never acted like he was the best player on the team.”
Combining quickness and power, the 5-9, 175-lb. Sillstrop finished his LCC career with 200 goals and 106 assists. He is headed to Denver University, 2015 NCAA champions and the premier lacrosse program in the West.
In four seasons on the LCC varsity golf team, Kento Yamawaki never finished lower than third in the CIF Championships and won the section crown as a sophomore. During that stretch LCC captured three CIF D-II team titles and in 2019 added the CIF Southern California Regional and CIF State Championships to the haul. Also this past season, the Yamawaki-led La Costa Canyon squad ended top rival Torrey Pines’ three-year run atop the Avocado West League.
The affable, but humble, Yamawaki was a model of consistency who had the ability to turn up the heat when the situation dictated. One such time came on April 25 when LCC hosted Torrey Pines in a nine-hole team match that would decide the Avo West championship. At La Costa, the 5-7 Yamawaki carded a six-under par 30 that included four birdies and an eagle, lifting his crew to the win.
“You just watch him and can see there’s a difference between him and the other players,” said La Costa Canyon Head Coach Casey Sovacool (Sean’s brother). “Some of the successful veteran coaches in the section have told me they’ve never seen a career like his and it’s something that may never be replicated. In the biggest moments, he’s played his best.
“He’s special without a golf club in his hand too. At LCC, it seems like our very best athletes are also really, really good people—Kento is cut from that cloth.” Yamawaki will enter UC Berkeley this fall.
Q & A:
Why did you make the college choice you did?
Fahy – “At Stanford, I felt at home the minute I stepped on campus and I connected really well with the coaches and the girls on the team. Not only do they have an incredible athletic reputation but it’s just about the best education I could possibly receive—I don’t think any school comes closes to this combination of athletics and academics.”
Lippert – “I chose Stanford because I can get a great education while still competing against some of the top runners in the nation. When I visited, everyone—the coach, my future teammates, current students and professors-- was so friendly and welcoming. I felt most at home there of all the schools I visited.”
Rhee – “I’m going to UCLA because of the amazing programs they offer. On the academic side, I’ll be going in next fall as an undeclared major but they have so much help available as I decide what I want to do in the future. I enjoy art very much—character designing and development of animation television—and that may be the direction I go.
“On my official visit, I had the opportunity to experience the atmosphere of UCLA athletics. The teams and athletes are all very close and I felt very comfortable. I enjoyed the environment.”
Sillstrop – “I chose DU because it is a relatively small school, it has great business programs as well as a world class coaching staff.”
Yamawaki – “At UC Berkeley, the academics are great, the coaches were amazing and the people on the team are really awesome. There are already five players on the roster from San Diego (two from Torrey Pines). The team is really good and just trying to qualify for tournaments is going to make me better. They also play at some of the best courses in the country.”
What do you hope to accomplish athletically in the next four years?
Fahy – “I would love to contribute to Stanford’s athletic success and help earn a national title for my team. And, of course, I will always be proud to represent the San Diego running community back home.”
Lippert – “I hope to go to the NCAA Championships with the 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams sometime during my collegiate career. I also want to set the 400m and 200m school records, be a Pac-12 champion and possibly an NCAA champion.”
Rhee – “I don’t know how far I’ll go or how well I’ll do, but I do know that I will always push myself to get to the next level.”
Sillstrop – “My goal is to start my freshman year and win a national championship.”
Yamawaki – “Being part of a team national championship is a given, but I would like to be the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and ultimately an NCAA All-American.”
Looking back over your LCC career, what was your favorite moment?
Fahy – “Winning the state championship in cross country my senior year. Competing at the state meet all four years and finally being able to come away with a state title as a senior really showed me that success doesn’t come easy and consistency over a span of years is ultimately what makes the difference.
“Also, having my teammates there beside me reminded me that what matters most are the relationships and sense of community created through the sport.”
Lippert – “My favorite moment was beating Cathedral Catholic week one of my senior football season. They were ranked No. 1 coming into the season and almost no one thought we could beat them. There was great energy throughout the game and it’s something I’ll never forget.”
Rhee – “Walking onto the deck at my first CIF swim meet. It was exciting and very different from any meet I had been part of previously. It was competitive but more relaxed and the team atmosphere made it a lot more fun.”
Sillstrop – “Winning CIF in 2017. We’d had a weird off-season because our previous coach left and our new coach didn’t come in until January. We had a great senior class and after going through that transition, to be able to win the championship was especially gratifying. It says a lot about Coach Cooper that he was able to come in so late, take command and get the best out of us.”
Yamawaki – “Beating Torrey Pines to win the 2019 CIF State Championship as a senior. It was kind of a relief because beating Torrey Pines in a major tournament was my goal since my freshman year. Beating them for the league championship was special and gave us the confidence that we could beat them at the State Championship.”
What made your time at LCC special?
Fahy – “Having the most supportive family, teammates, coaches and San Diego running community is what really made my experience so special. Some of my best memories were spent on long runs along the beach with my team—it’s truly the people that keep me coming back to this sport, not the number of titles won.”
Lippert – “All of the amazing friendships I’ve made and teachers I’ve connected with. I’m definitely coming out of LCC with friends for life and teachers that I will be appreciative of forever.”
Sillstrop – “The support we get from teachers, coaches and the community. Everyone on campus was always interested in our well-being and asking how the team was doing. The people out in the local community would come up and congratulate us when we’d played a good game—it’s pretty special for a high school player to have people do something nice like that.”
Yamawaki – “Getting to know the friends and teachers at the school. As athletes, we got a lot of backing from the teachers at LCC and the student body was very supportive. As an institution, LCC sets high expectations across the board. On the athletic side, that results in better performance by both coaches and athletes.”
What did you learn at LCC that you feel can help you next year at the collegiate level?
Fahy – “The biggest lesson I learned is that in order to achieve anything great you have to be willing to put in the work even when no one else is watching and you must never lost sight of your authentic love for the sport. I definitely feel prepared for the challenge of running collegiately, not because I think I’m among the best but because I’m willing to put in the hard work necessary to get there.”
Lippert – “I learned not to take anything for granted and that I need to work harder than I ever have in order to be successful in college. I feel very well-prepared. My coaches and physical therapists over the years have helped prepare me both mentally and physically for what college holds and I’m just excited at this point.”
Rhee – “I learned that your team is what matters most when it comes to the big competitions and that it’s important to bring each other up at those times. I believe that I’m ready to move on to the next chapter of my life and that my experiences at LCC will help get me through my college career successfully. College swimming is very team-oriented and I want to be able to spread positivity that will affect the team’s performance in a constructive manner.
“I hope to swim the same events that I’ve been swimming at LCC but that’s up to the coaches and I’ll do what’s best for the team.”
Sillstrop – “At LCC, the standard that is preached is to be the hardest worker, no matter game or practice. I feel very prepared for next year because I’ve been challenged every day in the classroom and on the field.”
Yamawaki – “I learned how to be a leader on a team. I also feel that I was able to become a much better player so that I will be more prepared for college. I feel well-prepared to move onto the next stage.”
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