If there's any way to hide a 17-17 season from the label of mediocrity, the Harvard women's volleyball team has found it.
Despite a disappointing regular season in 1996, in which the team spoiled a 4-0 Ivy start by losing its last three league contests, the Crimson mounted a strong charge through the Ivy League tournament, coming within one match win of an NCAA tournament berth for the second-straight year.
With all of Harvard's starters returning and a strong freshman class, the 1997 campaign promises an opportunity to surpass last season's accomplishment and win the school's first-ever Ivy title.
"We have all our starters returning, plus some great new freshmen additions, so I think right now everyone has very high expectations," said co-captain Elissa Hart.
The Crimson players hope to address each of the obstacles that have daunted them in previous seasons. Harvard followed a 21-10 season in 1995 with a .500 record last season, an indication both of a very difficult out-of-league schedule and an inability to win those non-Ivy matches.
While the out-of-league schedule does not influence seeding for the Ivy League tournament, winning those matches is an important confidencebooster.
"One of our goals this season will be to try to improve our out-of-league play," Hart said. "We'll be playing some other tough schools from the Northeast, like Boston College, Providence and Massachusetts, and those are always tough matches for us. We want to become more of a power in the Northeast."
Harvard also hopes to improve upon its 4-3 Ivy League mark, which will be difficult given the relative parity within the league.
Princeton-which has won four of the last five Ivy titles-Brown-the defending Ancient Eight champion, Yale and Harvard all have legitimate shots at the title.
Several veteran players will help determine whether Harvard wears the Ivy crown at the end of the season. Hart, as a First Team All-Ivy selection, returns as the team leader in kills (4.2) and blocks (1.1).
Senior Lolita Lopez, who will co-captain the Crimson for the second-straight year, is an athletic player who will help carry the burden of leadership both on and off the court.
Key underclassmen returners include junior setter Kate Nash, and junior outside hitter Melissa Forcum.
Nash is a Second Team All-Ivy pick and the MVP of last season's Ivy tournament, in which her 201 assists over five matches was no small part of fourth seeded Harvard's thrilling run to the championship match.
Forcum led the team in digs (3.2) was the runner-up in kills (2.7).
Four freshman grace the roster as well, including middle hitter Katherine Hart, who is Elissa's younger sister. The mix of young and veteran players should make the season interesting, if not difficult-to-predict.
"It's really been a very evenly-matched, competitive league with a lot of people contending, so all of our league matches should be pretty good going in," Hart said.
Record: 17-17, 4-3 Ivy
Coach: Jennifer Bates
Captains: Lolita Lopez, Elissa Hart
Key Returnees: Seniors Lopez and Hart, juniors Kate Nash and Melissa Forcum
Key Loss:Heather Rypkema