It had been two years and three days since then-sophomore Roman Holthouse ’15 scored an overtime goal to stun Westlake High School 11-10 in a 2013 US Lacrosse Northern Division semifinal showdown.
In the teams’ first matchup since then on May 7, the Warriors wasted no time getting revenge.
Despite finishing the game on a 6-0 run, the varsity lacrosse team was unable to make up a massive early deficit on No. 5 seed Westlake. Cornell University commit Conor O’Brien ’15 led Westlake with four goals, as the Wolverines fell to the Warriors 16-11 to exit the playoffs in the divisional quarterfinals for the second straight year. Harvard-Westlake finished the season with an 11-8 overall record and a 5-3 mark in Mission League play.
“The season was a little bit disappointing, since we didn’t win the Mission League or go that far in the playoffs,” said Kenyon College commit Joe Woody ’15, the lone senior Wolverine who will play varsity lacrosse at the collegiate level. “Still, we did pretty well; going 11-8 against some tough teams isn’t that bad.”
After a dominant three-game winning streak in late April clinched second place in the Mission League for the Wolverines, Harvard-Westlake entered a huge Senior Night matchup with then-undefeated Corona Del Mar on April 28, ranked as the best team west of the Mississippi River by LaxPower’s computer rankings. The Wolverines were dominated in transition in the second quarter and trailed 12-1 going into the halftime break, but the squad battled back later on to end the game on a 4-0 run and bring the final score to a respectable 15-8. Holthouse led the team with four goals in the loss, including three in the final frame.
“We ended up with a better score against them than almost any other team did,” said Holthouse, who led the team with 61 goals and was one of four Wolverines to make the 2015 first-team Mission League. “Even though they were in control for almost the whole game, it was one of the closest scores they had all year, so that was kind of encouraging.”
“A loss is always a loss, and it sucked that we lost,” added defender Andrew Park ’15, who finished second on the team with 81 ground balls, “but there’s always some confidence to gain by knowing that we can run with the best.”
Two days later, the Wolverines traveled to Loyola in a rivalry matchup between the league’s top two teams, but weren’t quite able to get redemption for their 16-10 loss in the team’s home opener on March 10. Harvard-Westlake roared back from an early 6-2 deficit to tie the game in the fourth quarter, led by six goals from Tommy Park ’18, but fell to the Cubs in a 15-14 heartbreaker after a goal from Loyola’s Harrison Mac ’15 broke a late tie.
“Our entire team started off the game a little slow and lackadaisical,” Andrew said. “If you’re playing a good team, you can’t get away with playing three quarters of lacrosse.”
Despite the loss, the game represented a breakout performance from the younger Park. After suffering a severe ankle injury on his first carry of his football season, Tommy had missed the final nine games of football in addition to the first six games of the lacrosse season, and Andrew expressed fraternal pride when seeing his younger brother dominate on the big state.
“I’m really proud of how he played,” said Andrew Park, chosen to the first-team Mission League. “He stepped up big and killed it for us that game. I feel like he’d downplay the severity of his injury, but it was bad. His ankle was pretty much out of his foot, and we feared that he might lose his leg. When we got to Loyola, their athletic trainer who had treated him at the football game was surprised that he was even able to run by that point, let alone play lacrosse, so I’m just so proud of the way he battled back.”
Despite the team’s pedestrian 10-7 regular season overall record, the Wolverines were rewarded for their rigorous strength of schedule with the No. 4 overall seed in the 16-team US Lacrosse Southern Section Northern Division playoff bracket. Only one of the team’s losses (an 11-10 home loss to Crespi, in which Holthouse was absent) came to a team not ranked in the top 10 of the entire Southern Section according to LaxPower’s rankings.
“The seed didn’t really matter to us,” said Woody, who finished third on the team with 25 goals and also made first-team all league. “I thought it was appropriate because we had only lost to top teams like Loyola, Palos Verdes and Peninsula, and Westlake hadn’t really proven anything up to that point.”
With the high seed, the Wolverines got an interestingly familiar draw in the first round against Mission League foe and No. 13 seed Chaminade. Harvard-Westlake had swept Chaminade during the regular season, including a 26-6 drubbing on April 14 in which school records were set for team margin of victory and individual scoring (Phil Thompson ’16, with 10 goals). The playoff matchup wasn’t quite as comfortable as the previous meeting — the Wolverines only led 1-0 after the first quarter — but hat tricks from Holthouse and Oliver Levitt ’15 combined with a very strong performance from goalie Troy Hattler ’17 carried the squad to a 12-4 win.
“There were a lot of things going on to distract us,” Woody said. “We expected to beat Chaminade because we had never lost to them in our careers, and then we also had the new uniforms released for the playoffs, so there just a lot of distractions going in.”
“We were trying to get hyped up for the first round,” Holthouse added, “but there’s something internal that when you know you’re gonna win, you just can’t get as excited.”
Finally, after a full year of waiting, the team returned to the setting in which they were stunned in 2014: a Northern Division quarterfinal matchup at home. Despite its No. 5 seed, Westlake entered the game with a strong 15-1 overall record, but the Wolverines may have been caught looking ahead to a rematch against No. 1 seed Palos Verdes potentially waiting in the next round.
Coming out motivated with remembrance of the 2013 playoff loss, the Warriors began the game with a bang, nearly putting the game away in the opening minutes. Westlake already led the Wolverines 6-0 after only one quarter, and stretched the lead to 14-4 with only 16 minutes remaining, quickly putting Harvard-Westlake on the brink of elimination with their dominant start.
“They definitely came out hot, and I think we kind of lost our ‘one game at a time’ approach,” Woody said. “We were expecting to make a deep run in the playoffs, and we didn’t think Westlake had earned their spot as much, but they came out hot and played hard and got to us early.”
“We just didn’t follow the gameplan, and a team like that is too disciplined and has too much firepower to not make us pay,” added Head Coach Alex Weber. “I think our hearts were there and our effort was there, but our minds were just not fully in the right place.”
However, even in the face of near-certain defeat, the Wolverines showed fight until the bitter end.
Holthouse hurt his knee near the end of the third quarter, and a fourth quarter goal from UNC commit Jesse Cuccia ’15 put Westlake up 16-5 with 10 minutes remaining, but Harvard-Westlake wouldn’t go down without making things interesting. With Holthouse unable to return to action, it was Thompson’s time to take over, and the Princeton University commit gave a superb preview of what’s to come in 2016.
In addition to absolutely dominating the face-off circle (winning 25 of 31 attempts throughout the entire game), the junior midfielder scored three goals and had two assists to Tommy Park ’18 in the game’s final seven minutes, single-handedly bringing Harvard-Westlake back to life with his ability to drive into the crease and attract defensive attention.
“This team will always fight till the final whistle no matter what, and that was why we were able to make it a game in the fourth quarter,” said Thompson, who finished the season with 49 goals and 23 assists. “When Roman went down, I knew that somebody had to step up. I liked my matchup and just took him to the goal. Roman was usually the main initiator in our offense and with him out, I took on that role.”
Unfortunately, despite Thompson’s efforts, the clock simply ran out on Harvard-Westlake’s miracle. Westlake goalie Matthew Kilkeary ’17 made a few key stops in the final minutes to kill some time, and the Wolverines’ game ending 6-0 run went for naught, as Westlake closed out the win to advance to the divisional semifinals.
“I’m really proud of the way we fought back, because for us, during the entire season, we were just out there playing lacrosse,” Andrew said. “The scoreboard didn’t matter, who we played didn’t matter, we were just playing a sport that we loved and having a good time. Even when we were down, probably going to lose in our last game, it didn’t really matter, because we played with the same intensity either way.”
For next season, seven seniors will be departing to graduation, including Holthouse, A. Park and Kenyon College commit Woody, but there will still be a hearth of young talent returning in 2016. In total, five of 10 starters will come back next season: Hattler, second-team all-league defenders Niko Econn ’17 and Shane Houska ’17, midfielder Thompson and attackman T. Park.
Furthermore, five more freshmen suited up on varsity at some point this season, as Paul Rodriguez ’18, Jared Goldman ’18, Lex Torrington ’18, Simon Pompan ’18 and Nick Tatham ’18 joined T. Park as Class of 2018 players to get varsity experience this season. Park scored 18 goals in 12 games, leading the team with a 41.9% shooting percentage, and Rodriguez was off to a blistering start with nine goals in three games before missing the remainder of the season to a leg injury.
“I think that we have a lot of talent on our roster and a lot of potential breakout stars,” said Thompson, who was the team’s lone underclassman to make first-team all league. “Guys like Tommy and Paul will continue to improve their already excellent games and players like Ian Watts ’16, Marco Marenzi ’17 and Zac Harleston ’16 could become impact players next season. In addition, we return a lot of proven talent in players like Niko Econn ’17 and Troy Hattler ’17. If we work hard in the offseason, I truly think that we can win a CIF championship next year.”