When Torrey Pines and La Costa Canyon, the elite when it comes to San Diego prep boys lacrosse, clashed in their regular season match-up, April 26, the Falcons had to rebound from a four-goal first half deficit to defeat the Mavericks, 14-12, in a contest that was in doubt up until the final seconds.
The two didn’t cross paths again until Saturday night’s CIF Open Division championship game at Del Norte High School. After second-seeded LCC’s senior Joe Kagen found the net with 5:55 remaining the third quarter, making the score 5-4 in favor of top-seeded Torrey Pines, fans had little reason to believe they were not in store for a replay of the previous month’s spine-tingler. Little did they know that would be the last time the high-powered Mavericks would hit the scoreboard.
A deluge of seven unanswered goals, four by senior Brad Lienhart, powered the defending champion Falcons to their second straight title, a 12-4 triumph that left no doubt about its merit. Ninth-year Head Coach Jono Zissi, who collected his fourth section crown, said this team was special.
“We were more cohesive this year—we didn’t have any superstars like last year but more solid players—a better ‘team,’” said Zissi, whose squad concluded its season 20-2. “The difference tonight was our ground balls and our rides—they couldn’t clear it.
“We’re known for being skilled and playing fast but tonight fundamentals and hustle won the game—our kids played so hard.”
The Falcons never trailed in this one and it was only tied for the first minute and 37 seconds which is how long it took senior Alex Pistorius to score the night’s first goal. Torrey went into halftime with a 4-3 advantage, the last three of those goals coming off the stick of senior lefty Miles Botkiss.
“I knew that I had to play my best game tonight,” said Botkiss. “We knew that we were the better team and needed to play like it from the beginning.”
The two teams exchanged goals to open the second half, Pistorius finding a small opening for his second tally of the match and then Kagen responding for the LCC. It was all Torrey from there. For senior captain and playmaker Porter Hollen the result was a matter of time, but well worth the wait.
“We were beating them in the first half but just weren’t scoring, we hit four pipes,” said Hollen. “You’re always going to have adversity in this type of game and we just had to keep doing what we were doing and hustling—it’s not skill in this rivalry, it’s all about hustle and desire.
“Winning tonight means everything. We’ve sacrificed so much, we’ve done so much outside of practice to make us a better team. We did everything right and to see it come out like it was supposed to is the best feeling in the world.” Botkiss matched Lienhart with four goals for the winners and Pistorius finished with three.
While the offense got the notoriety, the Falcon defense was probably the real key to the victory. TP goalie Bobby Gavin had to make just two stops and La Costa Canyon star JJ Sillstrop, who came in with 65 goals on the season, left without adding to that total.
“No. 33 (Marco Napolitano) did an insane job covering their best guy and JJ is a once-in-a-decade player,” said Zissi. “He was denying him the ball, making him tired and every time JJ got it, he made it difficult.”
According to Napolitano, game-planning had a lot to do with it. “Our coaches had us prepared so we knew where he was trying to go and I made sure I was there,” said the senior defender. “I just tried to put a lot of pressure on him, lock him off and limit the times he caught the ball. I think we were able to mess up their flow.”
For La Costa Canyon, which was still right in the hunt until the final minutes of the third quarter, the season ends with a mark of 16-8 and after playing a rugged, national-level schedule, it was just the second game lost by more than two goals. Junior goalie Mitch Likins was a bright spot, turning away 12 shots. Still, in the post-game chaos, it was hard for LCC Head Coach Kevin Cooper to digest the outcome.
“Disappointment,” said Cooper when asked for a word to describe what had happened. “I feel sorry for my boys, we shot ourselves in the foot over and over again. We didn’t handle our clears and ended up playing defense far too much—you can’t beat a team like Torrey Pines with that.
“They came out with energy in the second half, wore us down and just got all over us. They were tenacious and that was the difference.” He agreed that the way the Falcons blanketed Sillstrop was significant.
“Every time we got the ball they just pressed out and were pretty much shutting him off. Napolitano is 6-6, 6-7 and a good athlete, long and rangy—he’s hard to get away from.” Cooper also lauded the play of Likins. “Mitch is awesome, just a sophomore and he stood on his head at times.” Zissi echoed those sentiments.
“Their goalie was incredible, he made at least six pretty legit saves,” said Zissi. “They got a lot of momentum off those saves. This game could have been over earlier without that.”
Zissi also talked about the challenges a team has to overcome to win as the favorite. “It’s always hard where we are, people expect us to win and when we don’t, we’ve failed,” he reflected afterward. “There’s always that inherent pressure—you win, you’re supposed to and if you don’t, people say you choked. You have the burden of playing tight sometimes and we were a little tight in the first quarter tonight.” In an on-field presentation and celebration that lasted nearly an hour Saturday, plenty of whatever pressure the Falcons may have been feeling was released.
Questioned about the difference between this year’s title and the 2018 edition, Hollen and Napolitano had a nearly verbatim identical responses. “This year’s was better—it’s my senior year and we beat our biggest rival, La Costa Canyon, in the final.”