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Apollos push back in second half, can't overcome Slusher's excellent outing in OHSLA championship

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset goalie Travis Hemstreet is consoled by his teammates in the aftermath of the Apollos 9-6 loss to OES in the state championship game on Saturday.

As the Oregon Episcopal flag bearer sprinted across the West Linn High School football field proudly waving the baby blue and white school pennant, the focal points of the Sunset boys lacrosse program laid scattered across their half of the pitch — exhausted and downcast.

The OES student body infiltrated the pitch, toting bottles of Martinelli's that were subsequently popped and sprayed gleefully on the Aardvark players who bathed in the candied misting and moshed together in the middle of the mob as newly crowned Oregon High School Lacrosse Association champions.

Sunset goalie Travis Hemstreet squatted down into a catcher's stance and stayed there as a few of teammates came by and patted him on the purple-and-white helmet. Sunset senior defender Kyle Duitsman collapsed in a heap and laid face up on the artificial turf with his hands covering his clear mask. A young OES fan ran by Duitsman, stopped dead in his tracks, looked at the dejected defender and went on his merry way, his right index finger pointed skyward as he traversed toward the growing gathering.

Sunset's season wasn't supposed to end like this. Not if you ask the Apollos. After beating Jesuit 10-9 in the semifinals last week, Sunset felt like it was a team of destiny. With 18 seniors on the roster and a wealth of experience and skill, this had to be the season.

However, that somberly was not the case. Following a highly competitive first half that saw OES grab a narrow 4-3 lead, Aardvark senior Alex Slusher scored three goals in the third quarter to open up an 8-4 advantage. Sunset scratched back with two scored in the fourth, but it wasn't enough as OES won the OHSLA crown, 9-6 on Saturday.

Even though the Apollos were relegated to second place, Sunset was still one of the final two teams playing on the last day of the season in a game that's growing in talent level and stature by the year at the state level. Some would say the Apollos defied the odds beating Jesuit two-out-of-three times to reach the state title game. But, Sunset knew it was good enough to reach the state pinnacle.

"I think back to when we started conditioning in February and we always had the mindset that we were going to get here, we're going to win this," Sunset senior midfielder Andrew Meyer said. "We fell short, but we put in the work to get there and that's what's important. To get to this point, we have to be proud about that. We can't think about what we wished we could've done. It sucks right now, it stings, but in the long run to be one of the last two teams standing is special."

"We had a state championship in mind, and while we didn't get it done, I can honestly say there wasn't a moment this season when we weren't giving it our all and putting it all out on the field," Sunset senior attack Jacob Leonard said. "Tonight it just wasn't enough. But I'm proud of how we handled ourselves throughout the game and kept grinding. We just came up short."

Meyer said Sunset's dedication to each other and working toward one common cause started back in youth lacrosse. It continued on as the Apollos grew into more prominent roles on the high school level.

"We all had that drive toward the same goal," Meyer said. "The work ethic outside of the season was insane and the work we put in during the season was incredible. It was an all-around effort from the coaches to the players and at the end of the day, we all love each other. There was no better time than when we were at practice, working hard, competing. We wanted to win. We wanted to be the best Sunset team ever."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset senior defender Kyle Duitsman lays on the West Linn field surface in the finals second of the Apollos state title loss.

Leonard started playing lacrosse in the sixth grade with many of the current Apollos including Meyer. Sunset was a unit that was as close-knit off the field as it was on. That solidarity shown through as the Apollos were the last public school standing on Saturday. Sunset wasn't a compilation of carefully selected players from around the Metro area. Heck, the Apollos barely cut players when tryouts commence in February. They were a homegrown crew brought together by location, not money or skill level. Senior Tillman Gallagher gave Sunset a 1-0 lead early on and freshman Callum Craig scored twice in the first half against OES to keep the game within striking distance.

"This is the closest team I've ever been on," Leonard said. "We probably weren't the most skilled team out there, but we played with heart and we played together. That's what we really brought us here."

Great players have the tendency to take over at the right times when their team needs them to step up and star. Slusher was more than up to the task, seizing the game by the throat with a third-quarter flurry that separated OES from Sunset in the second half. And once Slusher reclaimed the lead, OES was able to protect the ball and keep it out Leonard's hands with a disciplined possession game in the fourth quarter. In the final 8 minutes and 40 seconds of the fourth, OES held Sunset scoreless, primarily due to its sequestered style of play.

"(Slusher) is a great player, one of the best in the nation and he definitely did a lot that hurt us," Meyer said. "He was a big reason why we lost there. But, really it came down to them playing better than us. They're a very well-coached team. And they have a lot of kids who do the dirty work. That's what got them this far and got them this championship. Alex is a threat, but OES's whole team worked hard in-between the lines."

Yet, despite Slusher's solo standout showing, Sunset never tucked tail. Craig scored with 8:40 left in the fourth that pulled the Apollos within 8-6.

"What I love about this team is we never give up," Meyer said. "It never seemed like we were out of it until the last 30 seconds when (OES) had the ball and we were down two. We faced so much adversity this season with injuries, being down some games and we just tried to push through and finish. You saw that to this last horn in this game."

Sunset has made itself into a sustained program that'll go on with the likes of Craig and fellow freshmen Calder Gallagher and Ajax Zappitello, amongst the other high-quality underclassmen on the roster. Leonard hopes the Apollos' lasting image leaves a long impression on the even younger players who haven't suited up for Sunset yet but will soon be under the same sort of spotlight.

"I think it does set a bar for the program," Leonard. "It does force kids to have dreams of a state championship. They see us up here and how much intensity we have on the field and they want to play that way. They want to get back here and get it done."

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