There is no one-size-fits-all method to winning. Some methods might work better or longer than others. But “biggest, fastest, strongest” isn’t undefeated. There are other methods — including “smarter.”
Harvard-Westlake is not the most populated private school in Los Angeles County, and it probably wouldn’t stack up against the top division teams in the Southern Section. But the Wolverines, who play in the section’s Division V, are 5-0, coming off their bye week. And they can attribute much of their success to brains as well as brawn.
“We may be able to do some schematic things other schools can’t,” said Coach Scot Ruggles. “Other schools may have better athletes. But we have some smart kids; this is how we compensate. They can handle more than the average kid can.”
That includes a near-complete overhaul of the program by the head coach.
Ruggles, now in his sixth season (and one year before that as the offensive coordinator), made several staff changes after his team staggered through its 3-8 season in 2016. And it was bad, Ruggles said. The Wolverines only won one of their final nine games, and defensively gave up 41 or more points in their last six consecutive games.
So far this season, in playing four City Section schools — including Division I teams Birmingham and El Camino Real — and Dominguez High of Compton, the Wolverines have averaged 39 points a game while defensively giving up 25.4 points per game.
The coaching changes, along with revamping the offensive and defensive schemes, have been working for Harvard-Westlake as it now prepares to open league play at home against Cathedral High of Los Angeles on Friday, Oct. 6 at 7:30 p.m.
“My sophomore year we tied for being league champs,” said Cameron Jones, a senior wide receiver and defensive back who’s caught 27 passes for 663 yards and eight touchdowns. “And we thought going into last year we were just going to continue it. It didn’t happen, so we had to look back and see what we did well my sophomore year, and not do what we did last year. We’re more aggressive on offense and defense, and have new coaches everywhere.”
“Last year we were also young everywhere, so the experience was not there. But during the summer you could see the difference in the freshmen who are sophomores now, how much better they’ve gotten, how much they have grown. As a team, we’ve grown a lot.”
Jones isn’t kidding about the young part. The Wolverines started seven freshmen, and had others playing varsity football for the first time. That’s a formula for taking your lumps.
Quarterback Jason Wang certainly got his share of them as a freshman starter last season while managing to pass for 2,098 yards and 18 touchdowns (against 12 INTs). But along with the bruises and soreness came experience, and a better understanding of how to affect a game.
“Last year I was real young playing varsity football,” said Wang, a sophomore. “And I felt, moving into this year after the 11 games I played last year, it would help me make the right reads and do the right stuff. I saw the game last year, and now the game is moving slower.”
Also having benefited from learning varsity football on the fly last year — and being inspired to prepare more intensely in the offseason — is linebacker Will Goldberg.
“I realized I didn’t want to lose anymore,” said Goldberg, a junior who leads the team in tackles with 41. “So putting more work in has correlated into more winning, and more happiness for our team.
“I don’t feel very surprised (by the 5-0 start). I feel we’re as good as our record shows. I don’t think we’ve shown our best football yet. We still have room to grow as a team, and get a lot better.”
The Wolverines also have big-time talent that is home grown. Offensive lineman Liam Douglass, a senior, has attended Harvard-Westlake since the seventh grade. He didn’t start playing football until last year. But his size (6-feet 5 inches and 270 pounds) and rapid development has earned him a scholarship to USC.
“My parents were a little bit nervous about football,” Douglass said. “I was tall, but I had to grow into my frame (listed at 6-5, 270) for playing football. USC was a school I always wanted to go to. I grew up watching their football games. So the offer was really a blessing, and I knew I always wanted to go there so it didn’t make sense to wait and see what else happened.
“I feel athletically very prepared. We have great facilities and a great coaching staff, great training staff, and great strength and conditioning coach. It’s been a lot of hard work in the weight room, getting our minds and bodies right. But I feel extremely prepared for the rest of the season, and the next level.”
League play is the next phase of the 2017 season. The Wolverines are still smarting (no pun intended) from going winless in the Angelus League last year. And they are not interested in being a co-champion, like in 2015.
“We’ve put in a lot of work during…to prepare us for the schedule we’re playing [the season],” said Thomas Glover, a senior running back who has 401 all-purpose yards and scored six touchdowns.
“We actually believe in ourselves this year, unlike last year. Belief is very powerful. When you believe in yourself, you feel like you can do anything.”