It’s been a strong season so far at Harvard-Westlake with a top four state ranking and on Thursday the Wolverines capped a perfect run through the super-tough Mission League. They’ll now head to the CIF Southern Section Open Division as a co-favorite with Windward of Los Angeles and they’ll do it with a head coach who’s just been added to the state record book as just the fourth in state history with more than 700 career wins.
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The unfolding story of this year’s Harvard-Westlake girls basketball team has more twists and turns than a Shakespearean novel, but in reality the facts about the Wolverines’ magical season up to this point makes a very strong case for it to be a tale of its own.
Where do we start? Is it with the Cal-Hi Sports No. 4 ranked Wolverines or with record-setting head coach Melissa Hearlihy? How about a dose of both?
A lot of folks in the girls high school basketball community in California know about the current Harvard-Westlake team, mostly because of the prominence of the Pepperdine-signed Rufus-Milner twins, Jayla and Jayda, and the fact the level of their game got the Wolverines all the way to the CIF Southern Section Open Division championship last season before they lost 62-58 to Long Beach Poly.
There’s a lot more to Harvard-Westlake than the twins this season, with some very solid role players and a freshmen group that includes a potential future superstar, but it really all starts with Hearlihy.
The native of Los Angeles who was raised in Texas came back to the West Coast to attend the University of San Francisco from where she graduated in 1983 after starring as a power forward. Hearlihy went back to Southern California immediately after graduation and took a position as a graduate assistant at UCLA under legendary women’s college coach Billie Moore.
After a year under Moore’s wing, Hearlihy got a job as a varsity assistant at Bishop Alemany of Mission Hills. The next year when the head coaching job opened up for the 1985-86 season, she got the position to go with a teaching job and began an amazing career that is now in its 33rd season. Hearlihy was at Alemany until the 1999-2000 season and for the 2000-01 season she moved across the San Fernando Valley to Harvard-Westlake where she also teaches seventh and eighth grade in the middle school.
Almost astonishingly, and until just recently, Hearlihy herself didn’t even realize how amazing a career she has had. Back in 2010, when her team that starred Nicole Hung, who went on to Princeton, Nicole Nesbitt (UC Santa Barbara), and Sydney Haydel (Hawaii), went 34-1 and captured the CIF Division IV state championship, Hearlihy was asked to get her overall record together for inclusion in the Cal-Hi Sports Record Book. At the time, she had been coaching for 25 years and clearly had more than the 400 wins needed to qualify for the career coaching leaders list.
Seven plus years passed and it never happened. Possibly because she didn’t have one of the top 10 teams in the state after 2010 until last year and because it wasn’t looked up at the state library by Cal-Hi Sports that has happened for some other coaches, the bottom line is that Hearlihy’s win total was never added up. That’s not criticism of her. A lot of coaches don’t feel it’s a priority to figure out their own records. The ones that do who also have switched schools like Hearlihy just look it up after they retire.
Now, for this feature, it was suggested to the venerable veteran coach to get her record together once again. When asked, Hearlihy hesitated and thought for a moment.
“I have it all in an envelope at my office at the middle school and I’ll add it all up and text it to you but I think I’m around 600,” Hearlihy said.
What she came back with was mind-boggling.
Not only has Hearlihy won a CIF Southern Regional and D4 state title, she’s won 17 league titles and six CIF Southern Section championships at the two schools combined.
Coming into this season, her 345-86 record at Alemany added to her 346-166 record at Harvard-Westlake meant she had a career coaching record of 691-252 combined for the two schools. Now, after a 65-45 victory on February 1 over Fairmont Prep of Anaheim and two more wins this week got the Wolverines to 23-4, Hearlihy has 714 career coaching victories and from oblivion she assumes the No. 3 spot all time behind Joe Vaughan, who had a 761-112 record from 1976-2007 at Buena of Ventura, and the 744 current career wins of Mater Dei head coach Kevin Kiernan after his team’s 63-38 victory on Feb. 3 over Orangewood Academy of Garden Grove at the Tony Matson Classic.
“I knew she was up there but didn’t realize she was this high up on the list,” said Cal-Hi Sports Editor/Publisher Mark Tennis, who has now added Hearlihy to the CalHiSports.com state record book list.
When the Santa Barbara area fires caused the cancellation of the Santa Barbara tournament, the Wolverines were scheduled to play in, Hearlihy hastily arranged her own event and invited the teams displaced from the Santa Barbara event.
Ironically, had she known what her record was, it would have made for a humongous celebration when Harvard-Westlake won the tournament with a 60-55 victory over Cal-Hi Sports No. 6 Clovis North of Fresno. The reason is that it was win No. 9 of the season and got her to the 700-win plateau.
If the story ended right there with everything Hearlihy has accomplished up until now, it would be more than enough for a saga, but for this season it’s really only the beginning.
“Thanks, it would have been nice but just get me an (CIFSS) Open title for the twins and I will be ecstatic,” was Hearlihy’s response when we did the arithmetic.
Personal accolades are great, but part of the reason it’s been so hard to get Hearlihy to accept the tributes over the years is it has always been about the girls, and the past four years a lot of the focus of her love and admiration has been for the Rufus-Milner twins.
“You can’t help it,” Hearlihy said with a chuckle. “They’re laughing all the time and they’re always the life of the party with constant positive energy.
“They have such a positive outlook on life in everything they do,” continued Hearlihy. “They’re always trying to be the best they can be in everything. They hold teammates accountable because they have expectations. They welcome the competition and take on whatever comes their way. They have that ‘it’ facto.”
There is no question the Rufus-Milner twins are the heart and soul of the Wolverines and Hearlihy obviously would like to get a Southern Section Open title for them, but the scenery has changed now that there’s an Open Division in the Southern Section the past four years to fit into the state CIF playoffs where there’s been an Open Division for five years.
This is not the first time Harvard-Westlake has been this highly regarded and ranked. They were in the Cal-Hi Sports final top five in 2010 when they won the state D4 title, but now with the Open Division scenario it takes things to another level. Together with Cal-Hi Sports No. 3 Windward of Los Angeles, Harvard-Westlake is a co-favorite to achieve its goal. Hearlihy’s team has split with the Wildcats this year so far and could play them two more times, once in the CIFSS Open Division final and again in the CIF SoCal Open Division final.
So far, it has not been an easy road.
The Wolverines opened the season with a 68-67 overtime loss to Windward but came back 10 days later to beat the Wildcats 67-54 in the title game of the Redondo Union Battle at the Beach Tournament. From there they were supposed to go to Santa Barbara but ended up winning four games at home in the tournament Hearlihy put together on short notice.
Hearlihy and her girls then went to the Dallas suburb of Duncanville, Texas for the Sandra Meadows Classic where they won their first four games and made it to the championship but lost 45-30 to host and Texas No. 1 and MaxPreps Xcellent 25 No. 8 Duncanville. Not only did they lose but in the title game Jayla separated her shoulder.
From Texas, the team returned home but after 10 games in 10 days and all the travel involved going to Texas, the team was beat, and Jayla couldn’t raise her arm. In the next game, the bottom fell out from all the travel and Jayla really unable to play despite giving it a go, and Harvard-Westlake lost 53-49 at an El Camino-Woodland Hills team it beat by 20 points in the Redondo tourney.
Since the El Camino loss, Hearlihy’s girls have been playing great and they’re doing it with Jayla playing at around 50 percent with the separated shoulder. The Wolverines’ lone loss was to Nevada No. 1 and Xcellent No. 18 Centennial-Las Vegas at the MLK St. Mary’s-Stockton Showcase. They also had a 54-39 victory over state-ranked Salesian of Richmond in Stockton despite making the trip without their best outside shooter, Melanie Hirsch. The senior who is scoring at 10.0 points per game was sick with the flu and could not travel.
This week, Hearlihy’s squad survived an overtime road game at Alemany and completed a perfect run through the Mission League, which has never proven to be easy to do, with a 54-48 triumph on Thursday night over Chaminade of West Hills.
The trip to Stockton also was a coming out party for freshman Kiki Iriafen, who is leading the team in scoring at 17.4 points and also is getting more than 10 rebounds per game.
“Kiki has a long way to go but the fact this kid has not played much organized basketball and is doing what she’s doing is phenomenal,” Hearlihy remarked. “Having the twins has helped Kiki. She’s coming out of her shell. The twins are grinders and do all the little things and that’s allowed Kiki to grow.”
Not only have the twins excelled on the court, but in the classroom as well at a school that in some academic rankings is the No. 1 private school in the state and top 10 in the nation. Both Jayda and Jayla are right at a 4.0 grade point average.
“Playing for Coach Hearlihy makes you very strong mentally and physically,” Jayla said. “Our success is due to her utilizing our best assets and developing us into having more confidence in ourselves. Like she said, we’re grinders, that’s the way we play. The little things might go unnoticed but we both play as hard and aggressive as we can and o whatever is possible tiny or big.”
Now that Hearlihy’s girls have taken care of business this week in league, the bigger question comes into play. Can Harvard-Westlake win a Southern Section Open title and possibly win the Southern Regional and a trip to Sacramento in March.
“Last year when we went to the championship it was a bit of a shock,” Jayla said. “This year it would be a shock if we don’t make it. I truly believe we do have what it takes to get to the (CIFSS Open) championship and win. State is a long ways off.”
For Hearlihy, a trip back to Sacramento would mean icing on the cake to go with her new found status as the third-winningest girls coach in state history.
“Can we go all the way? Yes, if we keep Jayla healthy,” was Hearlihy’s answer.
Who knows, along the way the two top active winningest coaches in the state, Hearlihy and Kiernan, might meet, and what a matchup that would be for the game of girls basketball.
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at email@example.com. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend