LCC girls lacrosse challenges Torrey Pines to open coach’s last CIF run

Sophomore Presley Mitchell and La Costa Canyon face Torrey Pines in Thursday's CIF opener.
Sophomore Presley Mitchell and La Costa Canyon face Torrey Pines in Thursday’s CIF opener.
(Ken Grosse)

There will be several noteworthy games on the docket when the eight-team CIF Girls Open Division Lacrosse playoffs commence this Thursday, May 12. But none will have the multi-leveled history and storylines connected with the 5 p.m. match-up between second-seeded host Torrey Pines (13-4) and No. 7 seed La Costa Canyon (7-8).

The two North County archrivals have each won three of the eight Open titles contested since CIF created the division in 2015. They have met in the CIF Open finals four times, splitting the victories.

On paper, the 2022 quarterfinal may appear as a potentially one-sided affair. After all, Torrey Pines, which has been ranked near the top of the section all season, has a three-game winning streak against LCC, including a 16-9 home triumph in mid-April, and beaten the Mavericks three of the last four times they’ve met in the post-season. Against a schedule ranked second toughest in San Diego, the ’22 Falcons have racked up a whopping +62 goal differential and lost just once to a section opponent, an 11-10 defeat at the hands of top-seeded La Jolla last Thursday.

Even with all that, it might be too early to write off the young Mavericks. They closed the regular season with five wins in their last six outings during what basically amounted to a “play-in” gauntlet trying to secure an Open berth. Not a bad way to prepare for the win-or-go-home pressure of the CIF Playoffs.

Four-time CIF Championship Coach Casey Belitz will be retiring when the 2022 season concludes.
Four-time CIF Championship Coach Casey Belitz will be retiring when the 2022 season concludes.
(Ken Grosse)

And there’s one more thing. At last Saturday’s practice, LCC Head Coach Casey (Rector) Belitz told the team she would be stepping aside after a magnificent 11-year run. How that unforeseen revelation impacts her current squad and Thursday’s showdown are the great unknowns, but the news will certainly be center stage as long as LCC is still alive in the tournament. The decision was layered and clearly not made without some difficulty.

“It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” said Belitz. “I’ve been very emotional because it’s really kind of been my life for 11 years.”

When it comes to the sport of girls’ lacrosse, Belitz, probably the biggest name in school history, has known nothing but success.

As a player at La Costa Canyon, she was a scrappy, do-the-dirty-work midfielder when called up to the varsity mid-season as a sophomore. A year later, she was an instrumental cog on a one-loss LCC club that finished third in the section. In her senior season, Belitz led the Mavericks in scoring, accounted for three scores in a 10-4 CIF Division I championship victory over Coronado and, in a pretty exclusive double, was selected LCC’s prom queen later that same night. She was also named CIF Player of the Year.

Following a four-year, 43-goal collegiate career at University of Oregon plus a turn as a graduate assistant coach for the Ducks, Belitz returned to La Costa Canyon in 2011, serving a one-year stint as an assistant lacrosse coach before being elevated to the head coaching position the following season.

“I was only 24 years old but I was confident,” said Belitz, who was first-year Athletic Director Kari DiGuilio’s first hire. “There’s no better time to connect with the girls than when you’re still close enough in age to relate to their thinking and I felt I had made a difference in my one year as an assistant. That rewarding feeling has stuck with me ever since.”

It was the proverbial match made in heaven. Belitz’s infectious, all-in personality and player-centric approach lifted an established LCC program to new heights.

Over her first eight seasons at the helm, the Mavericks rolled up an incredible, 145-42, overall record, reached at least the CIF semi-finals in all eight and between 2012-15 captured four consecutive CIF titles (the first in Division I, the next three in the newly-created Open Division). Belitz won a handful of prestigious coaching awards including the San Diego CIF’s Model Female Coach of the Year and the State of California’s Female Lacrosse Coach of the Year.

“I had a dream job and I loved what I did,” said Belitz looking back. “The team was getting the results we wanted, we were finding success and it was coming naturally.

“With the culture we were able to create, new players came to the team and they already knew about the expectations—everybody had the same goal in mind which made my job easier. I read a lot of books on coaching philosophy and brought in a lot of outside knowledge that kind of put us ahead of the curve in the mental aspects of competing, areas like sports psychology, visualization and team-building which was something that set us apart.”

But personal changes beginning near the tail end of the stellar eight-year period and the onset of Covid-19 brought a series of challenges and a subtle dip in fortunes for Belitz’s program. The ongoing results would be considered outstanding by most local programs but they were not at a level that had become the standard at LCC.

A deeper dive into the past helps fill in the gaps and, at least partially. explain the “whys” of Belitz’s complicated choice to step away as well as how they affected the trajectory of her program.

Ella Policastri is another sophomore on a young Maverick team.
Ella Policastri is another sophomore on a young Maverick team.
(Ken Grosse)

Belitz was not always targeted to play or coach lacrosse. She excelled in a variety of sports, not including lacrosse, as a youngster, but got exposed to the game through her father, Ken, who played Division III lacrosse at Wittenberg University in Ohio. When he became an assistant coach for her older brother Brady’s junior high lacrosse team, Casey got dragged along to practices. Then, when Brady played at LCC, she was there to get a first hand view of Maverick lacrosse as a fan.

“I remember noticing that there was a girl on Brady’s middle school team and that was the first time I had any notion that girls could play lacrosse,” said Belitz. With no club options available for girls at the time, she had still not played lacrosse when she entered LCC as a freshman and decided to give it a try. “With no previous experience, some friends and I just went out in the spring, picked up a stick and had fun.” It kickstarted a love affair with the game.

Some 10 years from that point, back in town after graduating from Oregon with a degree in human physiology and psychology, Belitz started looking at options in the nursing and physician’s assistant fields. An unexpected fork in the road appeared.

Adrenaline, an up-and-coming San Diego-based lacrosse company specializing in event management, gear and apparel sales, stepped into the picture, proferring a full-time position as head of its apparel division.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and they offered me a salary I couldn’t pass up,” recalled Belitz. “I got back into coaching within my job. It seemed everybody on the staff was a club coach (they had added girls teams by that time) and would be leaving at 2:30 every day to coach their teams.” With the year as an assistant coach at Oregon under her belt, it wasn’t an entirely new proposition.

After re-entering the La Costa Canyon environment as a coach, while still working concurrently for Adrenaline, Belitz moved to make her high school situation more permanent. She went back to school at Cal State San Marcos and got her teaching credential. With the four CIF crowns already in her pocket, Belitz was hired as LCC’s full-time Leadership teacher and ASB Director for the 2015-16 academic year.

Her 2016 team reached the CIF Open final but failed to win a fifth consecutive banner. It was the first of three straight post-seasons where LCC would be eliminated by Torrey Pines.

The close of 2018 may have been an imperceptible turning point—when real life started invading what had once been an untouchable space, priorities began slowly shifting and even an indefatigable type A like Belitz couldn’t always keep up with the pace life was dictating.

In the summer of 2018, she and her husband, Michael, were married and decided to try to start a family. Belitz was already well into her pregnancy when the 2019 season began and delivered a daughter, Tatum, on June 4, less than three weeks after her high school girls had suffered a one-goal loss to La Jolla in the CIF semi-finals.

She returned for the 2020 campaign only to see it derailed by CoVid-19. Her second daughter, Jordan, was born early in the scaled back 2021 season. Missing a game for the first time in her career, Belitz Facetimed the team as it battled Coronado while in the hospital awaiting Jordan’s arrival. In order to maintain consistency, post-birth she decided to stay away from the sidelines for the remainder of the year.

Hoping for a return to normalcy in 2022, the season did not unfold exactly as Belitz had visualized. To a certain extent it was a rebuild with a youngish roster that had not received conventional coaching for two years. Coupled with the general disconnect of nearly 24 pandemic-plagued months, there were plenty of obstacles to overcome, even without the personal adjustments being added to the mix. The latter was weighing most heavily on Belitz’s mind, though.

“Internally, the combination of all those things resulted in a feeling I’d never experienced before,” said Belitz. “A loss of control—and with it the sense of not being able to provide all the little extras that had set us apart or the kind of overall experience our girls deserved.”

Her enthusiasm and passion remained the same but the percentage of time devoted to lacrosse began to shrink, perhaps invisibly to everyone else, but crystal clear to Belitz herself.

“I’m a perfectionist and found myself consistently having to settle for not being perfect,” she said. “I’m my own toughest critic and need to give 100%. I wasn’t doing that.

“I found I was not able to be 100% physically and emotionally there for the team. I ask them for that and I have to practice what I preach—but that also means being there for my own kids.”

Despite fully understanding the circumstances, which also included a now-thriving side business she had started with her husband in 2018, Belitz still found it difficult to actually make the decision to disengage.

“It was very humbling for me as a coach,” she conceded. “You always feel that you can fight through adversity, beat back challenges—like we always tell our athletes.

“You know, I love this team, this program and it’s been central to who I am and who I wanted to be.”

As of Saturday, with the announcement made public and some of the pressure, angst and other emotions released, Belitz and her team were able to focus on the big picture and what’s on tap this week.

“I was honest. I told them that this was a good thing and me stepping away is what’s best for the program,” said Belitz. “It would be selfish of me to continue to coach just because I love it so much.

“They will be better off with a coach who is more like I was 10 years ago. I’m just happy that I had this season, to enjoy it with the girls and go out on my own terms.”

From a legacy standpoint, Belitz is content with the way her resume reads. “Looking back, I would say I was successful and made an impact,” she said. “I’m proud of the fact that I used my strengths and put it into something like coaching.

“The lacrosse wins are great, but if I’ve helped make a lot of girls on our team better people, if they leave here like that, then I’ve done my job.”

As far as Belitz is concerned, Thursday night will be an “anything goes,” scenario. “Can we win?’ she asks rhetorically. “Yes. The games where we show up and everyone does their job, we can beat anybody.

“We’ve made a ton of progress this year. If we really want it, if we can get our best game and capitalize on others’ mistakes, the opportunity will be there for us.”