Torrey Pines opens run at first CIF Open Division field hockey title Tuesday
During the first three years of her tenure as head coach of the Torrey Pines field hockey team, Courtney Spleen has lifted an already sound program to the upper reaches of the sport in San Diego.
Spleen pushed the Falcons to the CIF Open Division semi-finals in her first year before they were eliminated by perennial power Canyon Hills (formerly Serra), 1-0. Last fall, a gutty Torrey Pines squad pressed top-seeded Scripps Ranch to the brink in the section final before surrendering the only goal of the contest with 41 seconds left in regulation.
The year in between may have been the most frustrating. With the onset of CoVid-19, the scheduled season was canceled, then downsized and played in the spring with no CIF tournament. Featuring a ready-to-win, senior-heavy roster, Spleen’s club rolled through 11 games undefeated, its victims including both Canyon Hills and Scripps Ranch. That trio of Torrey teams (2019-21) racked up a combined record of 66-8.
Torrey Pines has four CIF titles on its resume (all four D-1), the last coming in 2016. Now, Spleen brings another top quality unit into the post-season, looking to achieve the only objective that’s eluded them—the CIF Open Division Championship. Torrey Pines, seeded second, will open its pursuit of the 2022 CIF banner at home Tuesday against No. 7 Mission Vista.
The ’22 Falcons, Avocado League champions, sport an 18-3 record. They’ve lost just one game to a San Diego opponent (a 3-2 defeat vs. Canyon Hills the first week of September), outscored opponents, 106-15, and bring an an 11-game winning streak into the Tuesday, Nov. 8, CIF quarterfinal game. But make no mistake, the gaudy numbers are just window dressing to Spleen.
“We’ve established ourselves as one of the best programs in the county, but it’s 100% about winning the CIF Open Division championship,” declared Spleen. “That’s the next step for our program—it’s been on our radar since I took this job.”
Have the previous close calls had an effect on where the team is today? Definitely, according to Spleen.
“Even though not having a post-season was a bit of a disappointment, that Covid year was a really big turning point,” she recalled. “We believed we could have won it all with the group and it changed the mentality of the team in general as far as their want to win.
“Last year, we felt we were the better team and when that didn’t fall our way, all of the returning girls made making it happen this year even more of a priority.”
Another aspect that Spleen feels has had a significant positive impact on this year’s team specifically was a mid-season trip to Palmyra, PA (about 90 miles from Philadelphia) for a three-game tournament. “I think the trip to Pennsylvania helped us a lot,” said Spleen. “We went 1-2 but played against some great teams and hung with them.
“Getting that experience as a team was valuable and, really, anytime you’re playing teams that are better than you it is beneficial.”
As the statistics indicate, this year’s Torrey Pines team is formidable up-and-down the field, nowhere so much as in the midfield where senior Smilla Klas holds sway. Boasting size (5-8), speed, superior stick-handling and uncommon field hockey IQ, Klas has 26 goals and 27 assists, both team-leading figures. Her coach says there’s a lot more to the package.
“Having Smilla on the field is definitely an advantage,” said Spleen. “In my opinion, she’s the best player in San Diego.
“Her skills speak for themselves but she also does a great job of leading during games, playing and kind of coaching on the field at the same time. Her passion, attitude and how she acts translates to everybody else.”
Surrounding Klas in the midfield is a trio of juniors, Sophie Rosenblum, Bella Tassara and Hayden Roddis. Rosenblum, second on the team with nine assists has started since her freshman year.
The starting forwards are juniors Avery Austin and Lucie Schroeder, who have combined for 38 goals, and sophomore Sidney Meltzer. Austin is an excellent playmaker and Schroeder the type of player who always seems to be in the middle of the action offensively.
Defensively, the all-junior back line consists of Kyla Byer, Abigal Raysman and Alex Silver and has stymied teams to the tune of just four goals during the current 11-game winning streak. The last line of defense is senior goalie Bella Ancuso, who missed the early portion of the season while recovering from an ACL injury, has recorded 10 shutouts since rejoining the lineup and has a history of turning up big in key games.
With Ancuso, Klas and part-time starter Addison Christie the only seniors on the roster, the future looks as bright as the present.
For her part, Spleen considers herself a more proficient as a coach. “I think I’m better than I was when I started at Torrey Pines,” said Spleen. “All experience makes you better and now, more so, I’m better at understanding what each girl needs and recognizing that they have to be coached differently to extract the best of their talents.
“We’ve also consistently tried to prioritize the enhancement of our mental toughness, creating a positive atmosphere and playing together. Those efforts have translated to the field.”
Should Torrey Pines pass their first CIF test Tuesday, Nov. 8, they would face the winner of the No. 3 Scripps Ranch-No. 6 Bishop’s match-up, Thursday night, Nov. 10, at home. The championship clash will be played at La Costa Canyon, Saturday, Nov. 12, at 6 p.m. against the school emerging from the other side of the bracket which includes top-seeded Canyon Hills, La Jolla, Poway and San Marcos.
When asked to assess her team’s potential and focus in terms of the CIF Playoffs, Spleen said, “The playoffs are do-or-die—this is it, what we’ve been working for and now we just have to make it happen.
“It’s going to be about executing on fundamentals, not making careless errors and finishing when it counts. At this level, teams will make you pay if you don’t do those things.
“If we stay composed mentally and take it one game at a time, we have all the tools to reach our goal.”
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