RAP Session: No Shame for This Year's Team
After the Harvard women's soccer team's shocking 1-0 defeat at the hands of the Boston College Eagles in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, it would be easy to be disappointed.
After all, the Crimson was ranked No. 7 in the country, was riding a 10-game win streak and had plastered the Eagles 4-0 a short month ago.
Looks, however, can be deceiving.
Few remember that at the start of the year, the thought of Harvard having one of its best seasons ever seemed improbable at best. Harvard faced many questions entering the season, as 1999 looked to be a model of rebuilding, not reloading.
With the graduation of the class of 1999 the Crimson lost one of the strongest, most successful groups in the program's history.
At the top of the list of departed stars was midfielder Emily Stauffer--arguably the best player ever to don a Harvard uniform. Stauffer steered the Crimson offense throughout her career, compiling the most assists in school history with 36, and earned two Ivy League Player of the Year awards along with four NSCAA/Umbro All-America selections.
Joining Stauffer in the exodus of Crimson stars was forward Naomi Miller. In Miller the Crimson boasted a four-time All-Ivy player and one of the more dangerous scorers in league history. The loss of Stauffer and Miller--currently third and fourth, respectively, on Harvard's career scoring list--left a gaping hole in the Crimson attack.
The Harvard defensive outlook entering the year was not much brighter, with the departure of graduated backs Jaime Chu and Devon Bingham. Chu and Bingham--First and Second Team All-Ivy selections respectively in '98--helped lead a stellar defensive backfield.
Throw in the loss of last year's starting goalkeeper and another All-Ivy second teamer in senior Anne Browning--who left the squad after last season to concentrate on crew--and the prospects for the 1999 version of the team were none too good.
But all was not lost. Harvard Coach Tim Wheaton brought in a strong freshman class to complement a solid core of senior leadership. In reality, the Crimson ship was righted from the start.
Harvard counted on its first-year stars to jump right into the starting roster, as four freshmen found themselves firmly entrenched in the Crimson lineup in the team's opening- day win over Texas Christian.
Freshman forwards Beth Totman and Joey Yenne--both of whose high school credentials could fill volumes--stepped in spectacularly to carry the brunt of the Crimson scoring load. The duo tallied 19 and 18 points respectively, good for the top two spots on the team and second and fourth in the Ivy League.
Freshman Bryce Weed contributed heavily in midfield spot vacated by Stauffer, earning her First Team All-Ivy honors in her first year. Weed netted five goals and four assists for 14 points on the year, and created countless scoring opportunities for Harvard with her athleticism and ball-handling skills.
Classmate Orly Ripmaster added three goals and two assists in limited action in the midfield to further bolster the Crimson attack.
But the freshman with the biggest impact on the year may have been the one in goal, Cheryl Gunther. Gunther stepped into the sport's most pressure-filled position and simply shined. Gunther led the Ivy League in goals against average (0.44), goals allowed (seven) and save percentage (.922) en route to the league's Rookie of the Year award.
Harvard's reliance on the freshmen was such that the team's only regular-season slip-up--a 1-0 loss to an inferior New Hampshire squad in early September--was marked by the absence of all of the Crimson's first-year players. The freshmen were not allowed to leave the campus during orientation week due to University regulations, leaving the Crimson shorthanded.
The success of the freshmen, of course, was due in large part to the leadership of the team's upperclassmen.
Co-captain Beth Zotter moved to the midfield from her natural position of forward in the middle of the season, sacrificing her scoring numbers for the good of the team. Zotter epitomized the unselfish play of the senior class.
Seniors Ashley Berman and Julia Blain created for the Crimson offense in the midfield throughout the season, while notching 9 and 12 points for themselves, respectively. For her play, Berman was named to the All-Ivy First Team.
Senior back Gina Foster and junior defender Lauren Corkery also earned all-league honors for their play in a stellar Harvard backfield that allowed a national-low eight goals during the regular season.
But the glue that held the team together throughout the year was the team's anchor in the sweeper position: co-captain Jess Larson.
Larson was impenetrable on defense, seemingly never losing a one-on-one battle with an attacker. She took the pressure off Gunther, helping to make the freshman's job in goal seem easy. Larson was unanimously selected as Ivy League Player of the Year.
But on Sunday against the Eagles, in a game marked by unlucky bounces and Harvard's inability to score despite controlling play and winning the shots on goal battle 23-11, the Crimson's inexperience finally seemed to catch up with it.
Having trailed in just one game all season--f or a span of about 30 minutes--Harvard's undefeated freshmen found themselves in a fight for their lives, trailing by a goal in the most important game of their young careers.
Their frustration grew as the scoring didn't come, and as time wound down in the second half you could sense the panic and disbelief begin to set in. And as the clock reached :00, shock would be the only thing to describe the look of the team.
Sure, with its elimination from the tournament, Harvard missed a golden opportunity to face a University of Connecticut squad that it had defeated earlier in the season, with the possibility of travelling to California for the quarterfinals looming for the victor. But given the expectations for the team at the season's outset, the success that followed was hardly anticipated.
So let's focus on the many positives, not the one negative.
Harvard finished a perfect 7-0 in the Ivy League--a feat accomplished only twice before in Ivy history--to capture the league championship. Along the way, the Crimson finished the season 3-0-1 in contests against top- 25 teams en route to a No. 7 ranking in the nation.
And all of this came with four everyday freshman starters.
Harvard played its heart out all season long, leaving everything it had on the field before finally falling. With all of its accomplishments, the 1999 Harvard women's soccer team exceeded the expectations of even the biggest optimist, leaving a legacy that no disappointing end could ever tarnish.