Wolverines win three straight as playoffs approach

Cole Jacobson

Coming off of a huge 23-13 rivalry win at Crespi on April 25, the varsity lacrosse team is hitting its stride as playoffs approach, clinching second place in the Mission League with the pivotal win over the Celts. Despite a 15-8 loss on Tuesday to Corona Del Mar, the team holds a 10-6 overall and a 5-2 mark in league play heading into tomorrow’s matchup with Loyola.

“I honestly was not expecting a win like [Crespi], so it shows how good we can be when we’re playing good team ball,” said Roman Holthouse ’15, who led the team with a staggering nine goals in the win. “We still we have a lot to work on, so we have a lot of potential, but that was an awesome win for us.”

After a 4-1 start to the season carried the Wolverines to as high as third place in the MaxLaxLA city coaches’ poll, the team was marred by attrition during a tough 1-3 homestand in late March. Last year’s co-Mission League Player of the Year Holthouse missed three of the four games, leading a list of absences for the Wolverines that also included fellow attackmen Paul Rodriguez ’18 (leg), Jared Goldman ’18 (back) and Tommy Park ’18 (ankle).

Two of the Wolverines’ losses came by a single goal: a 10-9 overtime defeat to then-undefeated Peninsula, followed by an 11-10 setback to rival Crespi in a rematch of the 2014 playoff matchup that eliminated the Wolverines.

“We were struggling to get a flow on offense and defense,” said Andrew Corlin ’15, fourth on the team with 19 goals, on the team’s rough patch. “There was no continuity.”

“It sucked not being able to play, especially because two of those losses were by one goal,” said Holthouse, who has 53 goals in 12 games. “It definitely hurt to have to watch from the sideline, and since then I’ve been trying to make up for that time.”

In Holthouse’s first game back, he returned with a vengeance to lead the team with four goals, as the Wolverines got back on track with a huge non-league road win. Despite missing Head Coach Alex Weber, Harvard-Westlake topped then-fifth-ranked Thousand Oaks 12-10 on March 26 for its first win over a top 10 team all season.

“Thousand Oaks was big because coming up to that game we weren’t playing very well,” said midfielder Joe Woody ‘15, third on the team with 22 goals. “We fought hard in that game to get a good win, and get momentum going into the break.”

Even as Weber also missed the team’s first game after Spring Break due to scheduling conflicts, the Wolverines opened April with a record-breaking performance. Phillip Thompson ‘16 broke the all-time Wolverine varsity scoring record with 10 goals in one game, and the team put together its largest margin of victory in more than a decade in a 26-6 demolition of the Chaminade Eagles.

“I thought it was a really good team effort. Everyone played really hard and got open, and occupied their man, which opened things up for me to get to the cage and score,” said Thompson, second on the team with 42 goals on the season. “It was a product of a great week of practice. Everyone was working hard, and it was great to get a win.”

According to LaxRecords.com, only one varsity boys’ lacrosse team in the nation has topped Harvard-Westlake’s single-game output of 26 goals this season. Kamiak High School (Washington) scored 33 in a blowout win over Archbishop Murphy (Washington) on March 28.

“It’s always fun to break records,” said defender Andrew Park ’15, currently second on the team with 64 ground balls. “We were able to execute our schemes and plays properly for an entire game for maybe the first time all year, so that was a really big accomplishment for us.”

Assistant coach Peter Swander served as the interim head for three games in Weber’s absence, and the team dominated in his time running the show. The team went 3-0, including two victories over top 10 teams in the MaxLaxLA coaches’ poll.

“Peter did a great job given the circumstances,” Woody said. “It’s pretty tough to come in and be the head coach of a team for a few games, but he did a great job for us.”

Even after falling to Orange County powerhouse St. Margaret’s, the team has been picking up steam nearing the end of the regular season. After clinching a playoff spot with a comfortable 18-10 win at St. Francis, the team made a major statement by defeating Oak Park, a defending finalist in the 2014 Northern Division playoff bracket, in Swander’s last game as the interim coach. Holthouse scored seven goals, including five in the first quarter, to carry the Wolverines to a 16-12 win.

“The win over Oak Park was big,” Holthouse said. “To jump out to an 8-0 lead and dominate from the start, that was huge for us, because we hadn’t really done that against a good team.”

Following these two big wins, the team went into the Crespi matchup with momentum, and got vengeance with a huge road victory to clinch second place in the Mission League. Holthouse led the way by scoring at least seven goals for the third time in a 12-day span (also including a seven-goal performance in the Chaminade win and the aforementioned seven-goal outing against Oak Park), and Thompson supported him with four goals of his own, as the Wolverines got their long-awaited revenge with a surprisingly comfortable 10-goal margin.

“It feels awesome; I’ve always known that we were a much better team, and we’d just never played to our potential,” the elder Park said after the Crespi game. “Today, we were probably around 80 percent of our potential, and you saw what happened. We still haven’t played our best game, and we’ve got more in store. We’re picking up steam and we’re going to get after it.”

The team fell to unbeaten Corona Del Mar — currently the top ranked team west of the Mississippi River by LaxPower.com — by seven goals, but players understand that facing competition of that caliber can only help bolster the team for a successful playoff run.

“Corona Del Mar is real good, so it lets us see how good we are,” Woody said. “It’s an ego check. We can beat Chaminade by 20 but there are teams out there that can beat us, so it serves a purpose to keep us focused.”

In retrospect, players view the rough stretch in March as a blessing in disguise. The Wolverines found flaws that were potentially masked by their strong early record, and became mentally stronger by overcoming the adversity of missing some strong offensive talent.

In the time since Spring Break, Holthouse, the younger Park, and Goldman have all returned to action, while Rodriguez is questionable to return by the start of the playoffs.

“With everyone starting to come back, we’ll get hot at the right time,” Woody said. “With the way we’ve been playing recently, we’re building up to that point.”

“Obviously having Roman would’ve been helpful early on, but not having him helped us find a different identity,” Corlin added. “When he came back, there was just such a noticeable difference in ball movement, and generally doing everything crisply.”

As of press time, the team has climbed back up to sixth in the MaxLaxLA coaches’ poll, but the Wolverines see potential for even bigger things in the postseason.

“We should be in the mix, we don’t read too much into the seeds,” Corlin said. “Coach Weber tells us every day that the rankings don’t matter. The year we won the L.A. title [2013], we were the sixth seed. We don’t care, we’re just excited to get into the playoffs.”

“I’m looking to win it all, and I think we really can,” Woody said. “The loss to Palos Verdes (13-2, on March 18) seems like kind of a fluke now. We’ve seen that we can play with anyone, with close games against Loyola and Peninsula, beating Oak Park, Crespi and Thousand Oaks. It shows that we can play with anybody.”

For now, the team’s focus will remain on Thursday’s matchup at Loyola, the top ranked in the city coaches’ poll as of press time. The Cubs topped the Wolverines 16-10 in the team’s first matchup on March 10 despite trailing 9-7 at the half.

Even though the Cubs and Wolverines are locked into their first and second place spots in the league, players made their sentiments on the rematch clear: this rivalry still matters.

“We’re hungry and ready for a good game against them, and we know what we have to do because we’ve already seen them,” Woody said. “It’s hard to beat a team twice, and it’s hard to lose to a team twice, so I think we can get them.”

“It’s going to be a lot of fun, it’s always fun to play Loyola,” Park added. “We’re all looking forward to it and we’re really amped; we’re a better team than when we played them last.”

“I think if we go hard, the sky’s the limit.”