The expressions on the faces of Harvard women's soccer players was fulfillment as the booters joked easily and playfully doused each other with champagne after upsetting top-seed Connecticut, 2-1, in overtime Sunday to capture their first outright Eastern Championship.
The gleaming countenances contrasted with the Crimson's hanging heads three weeks ago after the squad dropped its only decision of the season, 4-2, to the same highly skilled Huskies in Cambridge.
The Crimson has had no subsequent disappointments.
Since the loss to UConn, Harvard--with five freshmen in the starting lineup--has matured into a championship team with the will power and the firepower to execute and triumph under pressure.
The most important game in the process was the championship final of last weekend's Ivy Tournament, where a Cat Ferrante goal with 30 seconds remaining in overtime silenced a fired-up Brown squad and gave the Crimson its third Ivy crown in four years.
That tournament experience undoubtedly helped the team remain composed throughout the Easterns, but particularly in the last moments of the come-from-behind 2-1 semi-final victory over UMass and in both overtime periods against UConn.
"It's the intangibles that wind up winning these close tournaments," head coach Bob Scalise said on Sunday. "The girls have a desire to succeed. It's infectious. Everyone knew that we had been there before (in the Ivies)."
Of course, intangibles win only if there's execution in the tangible realm. This weekend's victories required a total defensive effort, mostly because both well-disciplined opponents sent seemingly incessant waves of attackers toward the Crimson goal, a tactic which demanded continuous communication, support and anticipation.
Of the concrete differences between Harvard's play in Sunday's win and the earlier loss against UConn, tight coverage of the Husky major offensive threats emerges as the decisive factor.
Rather than using the standard zone defense with its often complicated switching against the "fluid" formations of a UConn or UMass, the Crimson switched to complete man-to-man.
Midfielder Inga Larson, who headed home the championship winning goal, shadowed Huskie leading scorer Moira Buckley so diligently that the offensive MVP became a non-factor in the finals.
Likewise, reserve halfbacks Merry Ann Moore and Jenny Rayport, filling in for the injured Ellen Jakovic, similarly silenced playmaker Felice Duffy, who had tallied a goal and an assist in the first Harvard-UConn encounter.
The Crimson backline saved its best for last, turning in its finest performance of the season. Besides the individual coverage responsibility--Laura Mayer on Jane Spink, Jeanne Piersiak on Allison Vibert, and Kelly Gately on Jane Duffy--the fullbacks slid, dove, and just plain hustled to repeatedly deny the Huskie offensive many good shots on goal.
Behind that talented trio, sweeper par excellence and defensive MVP Deb Field plugged the gaps, clearing the errant balls her teammates had forced and providing a secure axis around which the solid Crimson alignment limited the Huskies to just one goal--a feat only three other teams have accomplished this season.
Despite a sore shin and a broken finger, both suffered from being kicked, Harvard's last man and the epitome of its team, netminder Janet Judge turned aside 16 Huskie drives in a truly gutsy effort. The statistics cannot record the effectiveness of Judge's kamikaze pounces on any ball in the area, executed while knowing full well that a sprinting forward might slide into her. Neither can they assess the value of her gravity-defying jumps to punch the ball out of the area and squelch a corner kick.
In the end, there were smiling faces, ruddy after almost two hours of soccer, exuding confidence and certainty--a certainty that stems from attaining a hard-fought victory.