Westlake seniors Jake Bechtel, Paul Columbro and Clay Wichman have experienced a lot in their high school lacrosse careers.
They’ve had a front-row seat for the growth of the sport, been through coaching changes and seen the Demons move to Division II. Now the four-year varsity players are hoping their perseverance and hard work will pay off with a big final season.
“The past couple of seasons it felt like we had leveled off but this year is different,” said Wichman, a defenseman and long-stick midfielder. “This year we see a lot of new faces out here, there is a lot of excitement going into the season and it feels like the hard work we’ve put in is beginning to pay off.”
Wichman said a big reason for the excitement is new coach Brian Stepanek.
“Our new coaches are great,” Wichman said. “They have brought so much positive energy to the program. Everyone is finally coming together and playing as a team.”
Stepanek and new assistant coach Matt Scheel were teammates at Western Reserve Academy, a school with a rich lacrosse history. Now they’re looking to build that same tradition at Westlake, which has had a team since 2006.
“We want to be the best team we can be and we know if we can do that the wins will come,” Stepanek said. “We have guys on the team that are experienced, know how to play together and adjust to different schemes on both ends of the field.”
Bechtel, an attack who scored 24 goals last season, is one of those experienced players Stepanek is counting on to lead the Demons.
“This is a veteran team but we had to hit the reset button and change how we did things,” Bechtel said. “In the past, we had a set offense and tried to fit the players we had into it, now we’ve adjusted and applied the offense to the talent we have.”
Despite having offers from many Ohio colleges last fall, Bechtel orally committed to Adams State, a Division II school in Colorado.
“I talked to a lot of different schools but I decided I wanted to experience something outside of Ohio,” Bechtel said. “I hope the younger players on the team and in our school can look at myself and some of the other people on this team that will go on to play college lacrosse and say, ‘This is a good program and if you work hard you will have opportunities to play in college.’”
Wichman is also being recruited by a number of Division III teams.
Columbro, who earned second-team All-Northwest district honors last season, is looking for the team to do much bigger things this season.
“I’m really excited for this season,” he said. “There has been a huge culture shift on the team. We all really look forward to coming to practice. We’re enjoying lacrosse and working harder than ever every day.”
According to Columbro, the team played well in preseason scrimmages against Solon and St. Ignatius.
“I think we really surprised some of the teams we scrimmaged,” he said. “They thought they were going to come in and roll over us like they did in previous years, but we gave them a run for their money.”
The Demons open the regular season Wednesday at Kenston.
Westlake, which went 7-9 last season and suffered a tough 9-8 loss to Toledo St. John in the first round of the Ohio High School Lacrosse Association playoffs, has two more seniors among its nine returning letterwinners. They are goalkeeper Paul Freedman and midfielder Adam Sandor, whom Stepanck calls the best athlete on the team.
Every two years the OHSLA adjusts its two divisions to reflect the enrollment of its members school, using a system almost identical to the one used by the Ohio High School Athletic Association. Instead of being one of the smallest schools in Division I, this year Westlake is one of the biggest schools in Division II.
“Even when (the seniors) were freshmen we always thought, ‘One day it will be our year, we’re going to be a really good team,’” Wichman said. “Now that we’re starting to come together as a team and we have a new energy and new coaches, that thought seems more realistic.”