Without a dramatic lead-up or even a warm-up match, the Harvard men's water polo team will face off against one of its toughest Northern Divisional opponents tonight in the form of the University of Massachusetts (UMass).
Originally the schedule called for a tune-up against MIT, but a sudden cancellation of that match left only the Minutemen to face the Crimson squad.
"I wish we had been able to play MIT," junior 2-meter man Mike Zimmerman said. "That game would have helped to get the kinks out, but now we'll have to deal with playing UMass first."
The Minutemen are riding high after defeating both George Washington (12-11) and Navy (16-8) at the Navy Invitational just one week ago.
Thus with over a week of game experience behind it, UMass, led by junior All-America candidate Brian Stahl, will be a formidable test for the young Harvard team.
"It is early [in the season] for them too," Zimmerman said. "I think that we are capable of beating any East Coast team as long as we play up to our capability."
The ability to reach that capability has been in question in recent years, particularly last season when the Crimson failed to make the Eastern Tournament for the second straight year. Thus the Harvard program has fallen under the rebuilding stigma.
But with six new freshmen on the roster and newfound confidence, these crucial early-season matchups could turn the tables for Harvard and take powerhouses like UMass and Queens by surprise.
"As far as being nervous, every year is different," said junior Marty Edlund. "The difference this year is that we know our potential."
That potential was tested this past week when the team ventured to Providence where it scrimmaged teams like host-Brown and Boston College. So essentially the Crimson did get its tuneup without having to beat up on the little guys.
"I don't even know if [playing MIT] is a good warm-up because we are so much better than them," Edlund said. "We have been playing really intensely in practice, so I think that the best thing we can do is play against each other."
"We had a lot of things we had to work on especially moving and driving without the ball," Zimmerman said. "We were very static especially on offense and that is typical for the first competition of the year. But it was a definitely a confidence builder."
Tomorrow will offer no reprieve; rather it will be an even greater challenge for Harvard as it will remain in Amherst for the Northern Division Tournament. There, Harvard will face off against Eastern powers Queens for the first time this season.
"The game against Queens is very big for us," Zimmerman said. "They have a new coach, they lost a few of their top players and considering our depth, I think that we can come out and surprise them."
First, however, UMass and Harvard will take to the pool tonight. Only then will the form of the 1997 season begin to take shape.