When Harvard Coach Wayne Lem left a successful and highly-respected Boston College women's volleyball program three years ago, he found a Harvard program that was in complete disarray.
Lem came to Harvard with definite goals in mind: to establish a strong program, to become one of the top three teams in the Ivy League and to get respect from the rest of the Ivy League.
Although the squad's record did not improve in Lem's first season, the team had a new attitude and a competitive spirit. Lem kept telling his players that if they continued to work hard, they would be able to smile after matches.
At the end of the 1986 regular season, Harvard was still considered one of the doormats of the Ivy League. But in the Ivy Tournament, Harvard gave Cornell a scare, taking the Big Red to four-sets before falling.
Harvard entered the 1987 season with the smiles Lem had been looking for. The squad knew it could improve.
And that's exactly what happened. Harvard finished the regular season with a 15-8 record.
The highlight of the regular season was a five-set upset over Brown. But that victory still did not give the Crimson the respect it deserved.
Harvard opened the Ivy League Tournament with a four-set loss to Cornell. The Crimson was not sad, just frustrated that it had not played better. Unlike Harvard teams of old--which would have been happy to extend the match to four sets--this Crimson unit thought it should have won.
After knocking off Dartmouth in straight sets, the Crimson faced Yale, a team which had crushed Harvard in straight sets earlier in the season. Harvard won.
The Elis brushed the loss aside, claiming Harvard had just played the match of its life.
Rodney Dangerfield should have been a spiker.
Despite Harvard's upset of Yale, the Big Red did not take the Crimson seriously. Cornell was looking ahead to the semifinals.
The Crimson spikers sent the Big Red packing in five-sets.
Had Harvard achieved the respect it sought? The Big Red players walked away without any comments.
In the semifinal match, Harvard jumped to a two set lead over Princeton, and was within two points of pulling off another upset. But the Tigers rallied to win the final three sets.
Unlike Cornell and Yale, Princeton was not going to deny the Crimson its due. The eventual Ivy League champions were full of praise for Harvard.
This year Harvard has proved it deserves the respects of its opponents, even though some teams, like Cornell and Yale, refuse to acknowledge the new powerhouse on the block. In its Ivy opener against Cornell, Harvard won the first two sets. Big Red players refused to believe it. "Come on, we're better than they are," they yelled to each other during the break.
Cornell rallied to win the next two sets, but Harvard took the deciding one.
The Big Red players walked away without any comments again.
Harvard went on to win its next three Ivy matches, including victories over Dartmouth, Columbia and Yale in a five-set thriller.
After her team's loss, Yale Coach Peggy Schultz rated Harvard the "fifth or sixth best team" in the Ivies. Ironically, her team finished in that sixth-place spot.
Respect. So close, and yet so far.
Perhaps Cornell and Yale have yet to show respect for the Crimson because they still don't believe Harvard is good, let alone good enough to beat them.
Harvard gets another crack at Cornell in the first round of the Ivy Tournament November 11. Will three straight victories over the Big Red be enough to earn its respect?