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Apollos reach the OHLSA semis again, but can't close the door on the Lions in the fourth

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset junior Ajax Zappitello celebrates a score in the first half against West Linn.

The sting of another state championship run cut short of holding the gaudy Oregon High School Lacrosse Association trophy manifested itself on the faces of the Sunset players as they gathered their belongings on the Lake Oswego High track and slowly made their way to an awaiting group of supporters 200 meters away.

So achingly close to winning the OHSLA title the past half decade or so, Sunset fell just short of the title bout this spring, losing a gut-punching 10-8 semifinal decision to West Linn on May 30 at Lake Oswego High School. Sunset led 7-6 going into the fourth quarter. And the Apollos had what would've been the game-tying goal wiped away by a crease violation late in the final period. It was a feeling all too familiar to an Apollo program that's been wildly successful in the 2010s.

But in the midst of melancholy goodbyes to the seniors and tearful hugs with family and friends, Sunset's silver lining was never more evident. The Apollos were a homegrown, transfer-free, recruit-less club, one that developed players like Callum Craig and Ajax Zappitello at the grassroots level and pulled from their youth programs, not a pool of out of district transplants. Sunset, maybe more than any other Metro League school, is the athletic establishment plundered most often by the local private school elites as area kids fly the coup searching for something different. That's not the case with the lacrosse program.

"This is probably the only sport at Sunset where kids actually stay," Craig said. "They don't go to Jesuit or Central Catholic. They stay and play for us. When I was freshman, watching those seniors really pushed all of us to get that title. We knew how much we wanted it. A lot of kids had older brothers who played here like (Zappitello) and (Calder) Gallagher. Our (stuff) is so cool, how could you not want to play for this team? Our coaching staff is by far the best in the state. All of those are reasons to come to Sunset to play lacrosse."

TIMES PHOTO: MILES VANCE - The Sunset boys lacrosse team reached the OHLSA semifinals against West Linn where it was defeated 10-8.

There is continuity, high-level coaching and in-house talent from the elementary school level through varsity and that's why Sunset stays in the upper tier of the state. Sunset is a perennial contender with true staying power that's worked hard to maintain its status. It could be the main reason why the Apollos ultimately win a state title, which could very well occur in 2020 with Craig, Zappitello, Gallagher, defender Liam Profit and goalie Aidan Shah slated to return. Those four were all first-team all-Metro. Junior defender Justin Bright was second-team all-Metro and sophomore attack Noah Almoag was honorable mention. The Apollos aren't going anywhere anytime soon, especially with prospects in the pipeline waiting their turn in the starting lineup.

"Winning state will always be the expectation for Sunset lacrosse," Craig said. "With every negative, you can take a positive out of it. With this loss, it just gives you that fire in your stomach to want to go harder."

Craig and the current junior class played with this year's seniors when they were in the seventh grade. Those formative years were "tough", Craig said, with lots of losses to Lake Oswego, but they grinded together and made up the gap as they moved to the high school scene.

"That's when we realized we were pretty good, we just had to do it...that was the special stuff," Craig said. "This was a tight-knit group. A lot of kids played. A lot of kids scored goals. Every day we show up we find out who's having a day. Sometimes it's one guy, other times it's five of us. We get the feel of it and go from there."

Craig commended Sunset's team captains such as Zappitello for establishing a workman-like, no laissez-faire like attitude in practice, which carried over to game time.

"(Zappitello) is by far the hardest working athlete on the field any day of the week," Craig said. "He pushes us heavy. Same with Luke Thompson. Those guys push us to be our best. The intensity is always high in practice. We're always trying to get better. That's a common goal."

TIMES PHOTO: MILES VANCE - The Sunset boys lacrosse team reached the OHLSA semifinals against West Linn where it was defeated 10-8.

The Metro champ saw its 14-game winning streak (including a 10-9 win over West Linn on April 9) snapped and ended its year at 17-3.

West Linn led 2-0 early in the first but Sunset responded almost immediately, however, when Gallagher scored on a wrap-around less than a minute later. Zappitello won the ensuing face-off and scored on his own to tie the contest 2-2 with 5:32 to go in the opening quarter. Sunset trailed 4-3 at the half after Almoag put home a goal for the Apollos

But Shah and the Sunset defense held it down in the third period, blocking a pair of West Linn attacks. Gallagher scored on a sweet behind-the-head flick and Hopper Zappitello added a goal to go up 7-6 heading into the fourth. However, West Linn took a 9-7 lead with 3:18 left in the final frame. Hopper Zappitello answered for Sunset and cut his team's deficit to just 9-8 with 3:18 to go, and less than a minute later, Sunset's Gallagher appeared to tie the game only to have his goal waived off on a crease violation. And with 1:20 to go, the Lions tacked on a needed insurance goal to go up 10-8. West Linn chucked a long pass downfield after a defensive stop that took a high hop and landed in the netting of a Lion forward, much to the delight of the West Linn faithful. From there the Lions bled the clock, fleeing from the oncoming Apollo defense, racing back and forth along the end zone until the Lions tacked on a needed insurance goal to go up 9-7 with 1:20 to go. Then West Linn won the ensuing faceoff and ran off another minute and change off the clock to ice the victory.

"I don't feel like we found a groove, so we had to rely on effort," Craig said. "(West Linn) just found their groove a little bit better than we did. Sometimes you work hard and it just doesn't go your way. That's what happened tonight."

TIMES PHOTO: MILES VANCE - The Sunset boys lacrosse team reached the OHLSA semifinals against West Linn where it was defeated 10-8.

Miles Vance of the West Linn Tidings contributed to this story.

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