Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
While it may be too soon to judge whether or not the torch has been passed, it was still a historic night Friday night at Westlake's Read Field.
The Westlake boys lacrosse team, despite seeing its early five-goal lead vanish, scored a pair of goals in the game's final 3:10 to take down Rocky River, 11-9, in the regular season finale for both teams.
It was the Demons' first win since 2010 over the Pirates, who have been to the Division II state championship game the past two seasons. Westlake closed out the regular season winning eight of its last nine games to finish 12-4. Its only loss in that stretch was a 6-5 overtime decision to St. Francis de Sales.
First-year head coach Brian Stepanek said he was well aware of just how important Friday night's win was for his Demons.
"I'm only 25, but I've been around this game for 16 years and I've seen the expansion of the game," Stepanek said. "Westlake's program didn't exist until I was a junior in high school. Because this is such a knowledge and skill-based game, I think the only word you can use to describe a win like this is 'historic.'
"There's no turning back from this point," he said. "These kids now believe whole heartedly that they can take these guys down at any time. And I think those guys know that too," he said, nodding toward the River players.
"Once you have that, you have parity. It takes a lot for that bottom to drop out because now you've got a little bit of pride, a little bit of tradition on both sides of the ball," he said.
Stepanek's Demons set the tempo early jumped out to a 3-0 lead. Rocky River recovered, scoring the final two goals of the quarter. But Westlake answered with a 4-0 run to start the second quarter, two of those goals coming from junior Chris Humer.
Despite the 7-2 deficit, Rocky River was able to bounce back with a 3-0 run of its own. That opportunity occurred when Westlake was whistled for a stick violation. The result was an unsportsmanlike penalty and a three minute man up advantage for the Pirates.
Goals from Brock Reimenschneider and Tom Robenalt made it 7-4, then Reimenschneider struck again just as the penalty expired.
I can't stress enough how well-coached Rocky River is," Stepanek said. "When we get a stick penalty like that, they're going to get three or four goals. That's really what slowed us down at that point, and they got back into the game emotionally.
"We had our foot on their throats at that point, but you can't let a team with coaches like that have three minutes of man up and expect to keep that advantage," he said.
That advantage evaporated in the third quarter as River got goals from Logan Drell and PJ Sperli to tie the game at 7-7. Westlake momentarily regained the lead on a goal from Joe Guay, but the Pirates tied it again with 26 seconds left in the quarter. That's when Evan Jacob found Steve Pappadakes for the goal to give River some momentum heading into the fourth quarter.
Jacob scored an unassisted goal on a run-in from the right side to give Rocky River its first lead of the game, 9-8, with 9:06 remaining in regulation. But just under a minute later, Westlake's Paul Columbro took a pass from Jake Bechtel on the left wing and fired it past River goalie Joey Artiste to tie things up at 9-9.
Both teams had their opportunities to take the lead, with Artiste and his Westlake counterpart, Paul Freedman, coming up with crucial saves. Then with 3:10 remaining, the Demons broke through when Humer took a pass from Columbro on the right wing and found the back of the net.
On the ensuing face-off, senior Adam Sandor, who was coming off an ankle injury, won the ball to keep it in Westlake's possession. The Demons controlled the ball and put the game away with 1:01 remaining when Bechtel circled around from the back side and scored from close range.
"That's why we had him out there," said Stepanek of Sandor's big win on the face-off.
"We've had a lot of key players who have been banged up lately," he said. "That's been another challenge for us that has been out of our control. But our guys have all played tough, including Sandor. I can't say enough good things about the kid, and he helped us seal the win tonight."
Stepanek also had praise for Humer, who finished with four goals and two assists.
"Chris really emerged and had a big game for us. He had mono this year, and that took him our for a little bit," Stepanek said. "He's starting to come around into form, and I think he could really do some damage in the playoffs. People are so focused on Bechtel, Sandor and Columbro that they forget about Humer on that left-handed slot.
"He also scored the winning goal against Jackson. Everybody in our locker room has known about him for a long time. I think tonight may have been the first time the whole wide world found out about No. 8," he added.
"I don't think it was our defense, I just think we were playing catchup a little bit all night," said Rocky River head coach Ted Dimond, whose team closed out the regular season at 7-7.
"We felt like we were chasing the effort we had in our last game, and we were a little late in getting that going" Dimond said. "Our wheels got in motion late. We'll see these guys again soon. We still have everything ahead of us.
"Again, if you're going to learn your lesson, let's learn it now instead of the next time we face Westlake," he added.
Reimenschneider led the Pirates with three goals and an assist, while Jacob had two goals and an assist.
"Westlake is a well-coached team," Dimond said. "We're very familiar with their coaches and the players they have, and that's reflected in their record.
"It'll be a fun matchup, now that they're a Division II team, as we begin our quest for a state championship run. It doesn't go through River anymore. In past years it did, but every year is a new year. We have an uphill battle, and we know that.
"We seem to play a little bit better with a chip on our shoulders and with something to prove. We did that the other night at Chagrin Falls. Tonight, we were just slow to put that into motion," he added.
Rocky River will host the winner of Wednesday's Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin vs. Orange matchup this Friday night at Rocky River Stadium. Westlake will host a first round game as well Friday night when they play the winner of the Avon Lake-West Geauga matchup.
"It's now one and one," Dimond said. "We talked about trading a .500 season in for a run in the playoffs. At some point, we hope to be on the top side of the scoreboard in these close game.
"Right now, we have some growing pains. But this is a tight-knit group. There's no doubt in my mind that we won't be hanging our heads for long," he said.
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