Chasing Down a Championship

M. Terry / SFVS

Ready For The Battle — Wolverines (l-r) Krista Semaan, Kiki Iriafen and Melissa Zozulenko say Harvard-Westlake is more focused on winning it all this season.

Banners are not an issue for the girls’ basketball program at Harvard-Westlake High School. There are plenty of them adorning the gym walls on the Studio City campus, and at all levels — league, Southern Section and state CIF titles. They are more than, however, a salute to excellence. They are reminders of the pursuit of excellence.

The 2019-20 edition of the Wolverines will enter the section Division 1 playoffs this weekend with a 19-8 overall record and a five-game winning streak. Already in their pockets is this year’s Mission League championship, which has earned them an opening round bye. 

Their first game will be on Saturday, Feb. 15, against the winner of the first-round game between Orange county teams Huntington Beach and Aliso Niguel. Those teams play tonight, Feb. 13, at Huntington Beach High School.

Harvard-Westlake is pursuing a section championship it feels has narrowly eluded the team the past couple of seasons. But the Wolverines also feel better this season about the actual effort of the pursuit.

“Last season (which ended with a Division 1 quarterfinals loss to Poly High of Long Beach) was like the grooming and building for this year,” said forward Kiki Iriafen, 16, a junior. “I feel that this year is the winning year, that we can push hard and try to win a ring. Last year was a buildup to this. Most of us were new starters on the team; now we’re more comfortable, and we believe we’re a hard team to beat this year.”

Teammate Melissa Zozulenko agrees.

“I felt last year we really didn’t come together as a team,” said Zozulenko, 16, a junior. “We were all new to each other, and not sure how comfortable we were with each other yet. But this year we have come together as a team, so we know how to play off each other. Every person has a role — there is no useless person on this team. We all value each other.”

Fellow teammate Krista Semaan, 16, a junior, adds another succinct perspective. “Last year we showed up to play [but] not caring as much. This year we all have the attitude of wanting to win.”

These are the kind of words Wolverines Coach Melissa Hearlihy wants to hear, backed by the kind of attitudes she wants to see on the court. And the team is currently responding at its highest level of the season.

“I feel like we’ve come together and we are peaking at the right time,” Hearlihy said. “In the beginning of the year, it was everyone around Kiki, and now it’s a team.

“Our schedule was very difficult. We opened 0-4 to Bishop Montgomery, Sierra Canyon, Lynwood and Windward and three of them are [section] Open Division teams. If we are shooting well, we’re really good. If we’re not shooting well, we tend to struggle. But what has really improved over the course of the season has been our team defense. It was about them committing, and believing they could do it.”

Hearlihy certainly has an enviable track record. This is her 19th season at Harvard-Westlake, and her 34th season overall as a basketball coach that includes a very successful run at Alemany High. She has more than 700 career wins, has won 18 league titles, appeared in 12 section finals and won six section championships (combined at both schools) and a state title.

Suffice to say Hearlihy knows something about what it takes to win at this time of year.

“Execution, value the ball, and playing defense. I don’t think one is more important than the other,” she said.

Some basketball observers had expected the Wolverines to win a section or state title in 2018 when Hearlihy had twin standouts Jayla and Jayda Ruffus-Milner leading the team. “Those kids were so tough and our defense was so good…that team didn’t care if it was playing the Lakers,” Hearlihy said. “They weren’t afraid of anybody, and the leadership on that team was really good.”

Iriafen (pronounced Ere-ee-off-en) was under the tutelage of the twins when she was a freshman. Now she is the undisputed focal point, averaging more than 20 points and 15 rebounds per game.

But it’s more than just scoring and rebounding, Iriafen said.

“The biggest thing I learned from [the twins] was hard work and leadership — and I need to bring that to practice every day,” she said. “Playing with them my freshman year, they really demanded that everyone worked their hardest, so I tried to do that in practice as well.

“I define hard work as coming to practice every day being emotionally and mentally ready, even if I had a bad day at school. I don’t let (that kind of negativity) come into the practice. Leadership is being someone my teammates can rely on, and someone [to whom] they can ask questions.”

Zozulenko, averaging 12 points per game, gives the Wolverines another dependable scorer while Semaan is a steadying influence as the point guard orchestrating the offense. There are seven other players on the roster who know their roles and play within the team concept.

The Wolverines are not deep. But they are dangerous. And this time they aren’t just happy to be in the playoffs.

“The playoffs are a whole ‘nother beast,” Semaan said. “But those [early] losses made us realize we had to come to practice and work harder. We grow every time we do that. It’s helped us grow throughout the season.

“And now we feel ready to take on any team.”

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