A legacy of excellence

As Thomas Hudnut wraps up one of his final school days as President of Harvard-Westlake on warm May 16, he prepares for an afternoon at the diamond.

Not only does he have the baseball team’s playoff opener against Valencia at 3:15 p.m. on his schedule, but he also plans to see the softball team’s first round playoff game against Paso Robles at 4 p.m. As he walks down from his office, a renovated house on the hillside above Taper Gymnasium and the student parking lots,  he’ll see Head Coach Scot Ruggles leading his football team in one of its first spring practices of the season.

The football team finally claimed the field back from the lacrosse team, which ran its playoff run deep into May en route to the program’s first regional championship since 2004.

But once practice is over, lacrosse will take the field back as the middle school lacrosse team prepares to duke it out with Chaminade in the middle school championship game that evening.

The girls’ basketball team shoots hoops in Hamilton Gymnasium to his left, while the boys’ basketball team shoots hoops in Taper Gymnasium, both teams months away from putting on official Wolverine varsity uniforms but neither wasting an opportunity to get better.

It’s the kind of sight that Hudnut dreamed about when he oversaw the merger between Harvard and Westlake into Harvard-Westlake in 1991.

“I think in contemporary America, athletics is hugely important,” Hudnut said. “I think that sound mind and sound body go hand-in-hand, and I think it’s the responsibility of the school to provide as many outlets for expression by its students as possible, whether that is on the lacrosse field or in the choral studio, doesn’t make any difference. I think it’s up to us to provide those opportunities.“

When he retires as president in June, Hudnut said he will proudly leave behind a vertically integrated, co-ed, well-oiled machine of an athletic department that fields 27 varsity teams for about 1,200 high school students. He made it a point to make sure that the school excelled at athletics as well as academics and put the resources behind his goal to make it a reality.

“It is rare to have a school head of Mr. Hudnut’s stature be as supportive and outwardly vocal about the importance of athletics,” Head of Athletics Terry Barnum said. “Most school heads find it simply easy to keep athletics in its place and don’t ruffle any feathers, and he was just the opposite. He wanted athletics to be as good as the academic side of the school and as good as the arts and he was willing to commit resources and make it a priority for the school, so from that standpoint, there hasn’t been anyone more important than him in terms of the overall development and the continued excellence of our athletic department. It’s because he’s given that ultimate leadership and vision for what he wanted athletics to be at Harvard-Westlake and we’ve been trying every day to fulfill that vision.”

What Hudnut says is the defining characteristic of Harvard-Westlake athletics is the ability for the school to maintain its recognition as one of the top prep schools academically in the country while still competing on the court and on the field just as successfully.

Wolverine teams and individuals have combined to win 16 state championships in the 22-year history of the school, and Hudnut has fond memories of all of them.

“Our state championships are all memorable to me,” Hudnut said. “Going up to the Arco Arena to see the boys’ basketball team in ’96 and ’97 was sensational. Watching the girls’ volleyball team go through the whole state tournament was wonderful. More recently, going to the [CIF] Masters track meet and seeing some of the runners do so well and set national records was extraordinary.”

The school has made an effort to hire head coaches that exclusively coach varsity teams instead of having faculty members coaching teams. Today, only Erin Creznic has both teaching and head coaching responsibilities in field hockey and middle school English.

Additionally, Hudnut cited the school’s effort to develop the best athletic facilities through fundraising as a reason behind the Wolverines success.

“The Copses Family Pool is a tremendous asset to the school,” Hudnut said. “Changing the football field to its present artificial turf was a tremendous improvement for which we can thank Ted Slavin, and redoing Franklin Field to become O’Malley Family Field was a tremendous addition to the school.”

While Hudnut was proud of creating programs where student-athletes could develop to their best potential and represent the school in state championship games, he said it was more important to make sure every student could experience a well-rounded school experience by having teams that did not require as much time and energy as the perennial state title contenders.

He added that even within some of the school’s strongest individual programs, such as track and field and swimming, athletes could choose for themselves whether to vigorously or casually participate in the sport and still be apart of the program as a whole.

“I think it’s better to have lots of very good opportunities,” Hudnut said. “I forget how many interscholastic teams we have at the moment, and I think it’s terrific. Some of them are very pyramidal in nature, you can’t make it to the varsity level without being very accomplished, others don’t have cuts and take all comers. If a student at Harvard-Westlake wants to be on a team, he or she will be on a team. It may not be the team you thought you would be on when you entered the school, but there are opportunities for everyone to participate and I think that’s important.”

Moving forward, Hudnut will hand over his title to new President Rick Commons, who taught English and  was a dean during a five year tenure at the school in the 1990s. Commons, who also was the head coach of the boys’ soccer team, has not indicated that he has any changes in mind for the dynamic of athletics at Harvard-Westlake.

Commons was an administrator at the McDonough School in Baltimore before becoming Headmaster at Groton School in Massachusetts and was described as a “sports enthusiast” by Hudnut.

“As for athletics, like Tom Hudnut, I think it’s good for Harvard-Westlake to have a culture of excellence outside the classroom as well as within it,” Commons said. “I have been hugely impressed by the athletic excellence that the school has achieved in recent years without apparent compromise of the academic mission. I had the privilege of coaching a couple of great boys’ soccer teams at Harvard-Westlake back in the ’90s, but I considered it an equal privilege to attend the superb drama productions, listen to student debates that belonged before the Supreme Court or see the breathtaking work in the art studios.”

While no programs are planning for any major changes, Barnum said that the athletic department hopes to continue its main goal of enhancing the development of athletes from the middle school before they move to the high school level. While he said that every sports program now has a middle school team in addition to a varsity team, coaches need to continue to work at tracking development of future varsity players.

“From a process standpoint, I think our sports should continue to try to improve its vertical integration,” Barnum said. “This is for all programs making sure that we are consistent and coherent seventh through 12th grade. I think that those are all things we need to work on. At this point, every program we have has a middle school component to it. Lacrosse and cheerleading were the two last holdouts and they both have a middle school component now. That’s been a really positive thing. The importance of getting students in your program early on and having them understand what is expected of them from a very young age helps their development and is ultimately going to help them be better athletes.”

With thousands of games and moments to choose from, Hudnut called his favorite memory from Harvard-Westlake athletics from a game the Wolverines actually lost, referencing the 1998 boys’ water polo team that featured his son Peter Hudnut ’99 and its 11-7 loss to Long Beach Wilson in the CIF championship game.

The underdog Wolverines team’s four-goal defeat was the narrowest victory on Long Beach Wilson’s undefeated season

“I don’t know if it’s a professional memory or a paternal memory, but it was about the most exciting game I can remember,” Hudnut said. “We sadly ended up losing but it was a magnificent game, and it was wonderfully played by both teams.”

Harvard-Westlake had more success on that recent warm May 16 evening.

The baseball team began the night with a 7-1 win over Valencia, softball followed with a 7-0 shutout victory over Paso Robles, both advancing to the second round of playoffs, and the middle school lacrosse team capped the night off defending the Wolverines’ home turf on Ted Slavin Field with a 4-0 win over Chaminade to claim the Junior High Delphic League Championship.

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