With stress levels soaring in the midst of midterms and a two-game losing streak, the No. 11 Harvard women's soccer team got exactly what it needed yesterday--a day off.
The Crimson (10-4, 4-1 Ivy) did not practice yesterday, electing instead to rest up as it prepares for a crucial match on Sunday against No. 21 Dartmouth in Hanover. The battle will feature the top two teams in the Northeast, as the Crimson and the Big Green (10-4, 3-1 Ivy) are ranked No. 1 and 2 in the region, respectively.
More importantly, Sunday's tilt will once again have a huge impact on the Ivy League standings. In each of the past six seasons, the winner of the Harvard-Dartmouth match-up has gone on to become Ivy League champion. The stakes are no less high this time around, as the Big Green is just half a game in back of the Crimson for first place in the league.
"This is the absolute biggest game of the year," sophomore midfielder Orly Ripmaster said. "If we don't win, we don't win the Ivy League, and that is our entire purpose. Dartmouth is going to be up for this and neither of us wants to be denied."
On Sunday, Harvard will be seeking to regroup after sustaining 1-0 losses to both Penn State and UConn earlier this week. The twin defeats snapped the Crimson's eight-game winning streak and have provided Harvard with back-to-back losses for the first time since the early part of the 1998 campaign.
The most adverse trend of late for the Crimson has been its difficulty converting scoring opportunities into goals. Against Penn State in particular, Harvard posed numerous threats in the offensive end early in the first half, but could not find the back of the net. Those lost opportunities were magnified as the game went on, as the Crimson got fewer and fewer good chances.
And so now Harvard finds itself in its longest scoreless stretch in seven seasons.
The task on offense will not be any easier this weekend against the Big Green. Dartmouth has allowed just two goals in league action so far this season.
"The biggest problem with our offense has been that we've been too worried about our defense," Ripmaster said. "[Penn State and UConn] pushed us way back and really came at us.
"Dartmouth is a good team, and we have to respect that, but we can't be too concerned."
One player that the Crimson cannot overlook on defense, however, is Big Green senior forward Jessica Post. Currently the sixth-leading scorer in school history, Post contributed two goals and an assist in Dartmouth's 4-2 win over UConn last week.
But for all of Harvard's recent struggles, Dartmouth is not exactly riding a huge wave of momentum, either. The Big Green suffered a heartbreaking loss of its own this past Wednesday, falling 2-1 in double-overtime to Hartford, a team that Harvard will face next Tuesday.
The Big Green will nevertheless enter Sunday's game battle-tested. In addition to Hartford and UConn, Dartmouth has also faced Nebraska, Richmond, and William & Mary, all of which are in the national Top 25.
Against a defense as stingy as Dartmouth's, Harvard will need to recover the scoring touch it displayed earlier this month. Prior to last Sunday, Harvard had been averaging three goals per game in October.
In fact, the Crimson's top two point scorers--sophomore forward Joey Yenne and freshman midfielder Katie Westfall--were both recognized on Monday for their offensive performances one week ago. Yenne received Ivy Player of the Week honors, while Westfall was named Rookie of the Week.
If either of those players--or any of their nine teammates who have notched goals this year--can break the Crimson's bad luck on offense, Harvard would be in good position for a victory with backstop Cheryl Gunther in net.
Gunther has made 25 saves in her last four games.
Even after dropping its last two decisions, if Harvard can rally and win its last three games, it could very easily enter the postseason in the exact same favorable position it found itself in last year, when the Crimson earned a bye in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That would be no small feat considering all the adversity the team faced this past year.
"Last season, [a high level of success] was expected, this year it wasn't as much," Ripmaster said. "Things haven't come as easily [this season], and goals haven't been as plenty. To get back to the level we were at last year would be awesome."