There were certainly more important matches for the Harvard women's water polo team, but none was as telling as the team's battle with Brown at the UMass-Amherst Tournament April 9-10.
The Crimson (19-8 overall, 5-0 Ivy) was without the services of two of its best players--senior standout goalie Amber Keasey and freshman driver Missy Ford--losses that probably would have spelled disaster for the team in earlier years.
But, putting in one of its best performances of the season, Harvard dominated, getting out to a 11-0 lead and cruising to a 14-6 win.
"That match will stand out because it said a lot of about where this program has come in the last few years," senior two-meter defender Jen Gahan says. "Since I've been here, the team has really become much better balanced--there are about four or five standout players rather than one or two. We have a lot more guns."
Gahan would know. The senior's participation in the sport at Harvard has spanned five years, as she took one year of school off. She has been the main source of Crimson firepower since she stepped up as a freshman during the 1989-90 season and led the team to the national championships, garnering all-America honors along the way. Since she has garnered myriad of accolades, including a place on the junior national team.
In other words, she knows women's water polo.
"Of all my years here, this one was the best," she says. "While we made it to nationals my freshman year, this year was satisfying in that I think our team was really better.I've had the privilege or seeing so many good, strong players come up through the ranks. Our program has never been in better shape."
If only the rest of the team would know it.
Indeed, if there was one remediable flaw holding the team back, it was a lack of confidence.
"There were a lot of meets in which we would get down and then just fold," she says. "We had a good year, but we could've done even better, and I'm sure that they will in the future."
The team got the year off to a great start by placing first at the Penn State Invitational. To do that, the team came away with two convincing wins over Penn state one against Villanova.
The Crimson then ventured out west to the state that made the game famous, California, and got a bitter taste of what first-rate collegiate water polo can be like, finishing seventh of 12 teams in the Pomona Invitational March 26-27. The team demolished Occidental in the first round, 18-1, and beat Cal-Poly in the second, 8-7, but then fell hard to heavies UC-San Diego, 15-4, and Pomona, 11-5. Dropped to the loser's bracket, the team finished the tournament with two convincing wins over San Luis Obispo and Occidental.
After that, the squad hung around town for a game against Pomona, which it lost, 11-6.
After the Pomona loss, Harvard returned to the East Coast in time to put in a string of solid performances at various invitationals. It went 3-1 at the UMass-Amherst tourney, beating Brown and losing only to Metro-Boston, a team of former college stars. It went 4-1 at its own Harvard Invitational, beating a tough Princeton team to clinch the league championship, and again losing only to Metro-Boston. And it went 3-0 at the MIT Invitational.
With only two losses since the trip to California, both of the Metro-Boston, the team garnered the fourth seed at Easterns and made the trip to Westleyan primed for an upset.
But there would be no upset.
Harvard beat Princeton in the first round of the tourney, 7-4, and then demolished UMass-Amherst, 12-5. But, catapulted into the round of four, the Crimson was stung by eventual champion Slippery Rock, 23-3, set back by Maryland in a nail-biter 5-4, and then fell to Bucknell in the finale, 7-5.
The team's performances in the last two games--both very winnable--were disappointing, and they were in large part the products of the its lack of confidence.
"In both games we got down and just didn't have what it took to come back," Gahan says. "The Bucknell game was particularly frustrating because we were ahead at first and then, after they went up 5-4 in the third period, we just seemed to quit."
"I think a more experienced team will realize that a one-point margin is essentially a tie, and will battle like hell to get the win," she adds. "We, on the other hand, just seemed to roll over."
Fortunately for the team, it will have a whole summer to fine tune its game and develop the confidence it needs for next season.
Unfortunately, though, with the loss of such stars as Gahan and Keasey, the team might need more than just a little confidence to stay it through the season.
"Next year, we'll really see just how balanced this year's team was," Gahan says.
WOMEN'S WATER POLO
Record: 19-6 (18-6 college)
Ivy League: 5-0
Key Players: Jen Gahan, Amber Keasey, Erin Pyka
Seniors: Amber Keasey, Stephanie Stein, Kate Maloney, Jen Gahan