When the Harvard men's lacrosse team faces off against Cornell today in Ithaca, NY., the Crimson may find itself looking into a mirror.
Both teams have lost high-powered players to graduation and boast young defensive lines, anchored by highly-touted junior netminders. And each team is still searching for the right offensive formula.
But the differences end there.
While the Crimson (0-1) struggled in its season-opener, losing to C.W. Post College 11-8 last weekend at Ohiri Field, Cornell has cruised to a 2-0 start. Last weekend, the Big Red turned in a stellar performance against Army, upending the Cadets in overtime, 14-13.
"Lady Luck was with us last weekend. We got very lucky," said Cornell Coach Richie Moran. "Everyone's picked us for the cellar this year, so we've been working hard to get the right formula."
Traditionally a national force in Division I lacrosse, Cornell has the winningest record in Ivy League lacrosse history. Last year, the Big Red had an unusually dismal season, turning a 7-6 overall, 2-4 Ivy record. And coming into Ohiri Field, the nationally-ranked Cornell team was burned by a surging, though unranked, Crimson squad, 12-11.
In Saturday's loss to the Pioneers, Crimson inexperience showed through. Harvard struggled to contain the C.W. Post fast-break and had trouble clearing the ball. On offense, the Pioneers' pressure forced easy turnovers and poor passing by the untested Crimson.
This week, the Crimson has worked on game-type situations, focusing primarily on transition.
Last weekend, "we lost our intensity and dropped too many passes," Co-Captain Tim Reilly said. "We've had a full week outside, practicing our clears and unsettled situations. It should become second-nature to run up and down the field."
The team has also worked on its offensive execution, practicing against tighter defense in its scrimmages.
"They have to put more pressure on themselves. They have to get their intensity," Harvard Coach Scott Anderson said. "When you don't have a lot of firepower, you have to control the ball and be more aggressive."
Harvard will need that scoring thrust to break through Cornell's stingy line of long-sticks anchored by 6-ft. senior Tom Morgan. Much like Harvard, the Big Red's defensive strength comes primarily in the cage. Junior netminder Tim Shea came in third in the Ivies in save percentage (57.0%) last year, right above Harvard's Chris Miller (56.3%).
Harvard shelled the young Shea in the early going, scoring two goals in the first two minutes. Today, in Ithaca, the Crimson will try for a repeat performance, building its lead early and avoiding the catch-up game, which failed against C.W. Post.
Harvard will look to attackers Mick Cavouti and Mike Porter and midfielders Tim Reilly and Paul Faust to provide the necessary spark against the Big Red.
The Crimson has moved junior Donny Rogers back to midfield to bolster the offense.
Harvard also must clamp down on defense. Fortunately for the Crimson, much of Cornell's fire-power departed last spring; the Big Red's top five scorers last year, including all-Ivy midfielder Vince Angotti, all graduated. This year, Cornell is led by senior attacker John Snow and sophomore sensation John Busse, who netted four goals against Army.
The pressure to contain the Cornell attack will fall primarily on Miller and long-sticks Dennis Murphy, Mike Tauckus, and Mike Kramer. Because much of Cornell's offense is powered by midfielders, the Crimson's Chad Prusmack, Brian Connelly, Pete Welch and Robb Hirsh will also be called on to pick up the defensive slack.
"After this game, we'll see what the true character of the team is," Reilly said. "This will show us whether we're on the rebound."