Back in September, the Harvard field hockey team's prospects were bolstered by the team's new turf. Now, they're defined by sweat.
Tomorrow at noon, the No. 16 Crimson (11-5, 5-1 Ivy) will play Columbia in a critical Ivy League battle on Jordan Field. No. 6 Princeton all but locked up its seventh straight Ivy League Championship with a win over Cornell Tuesday night.
Princeton would have to lose its final Ivy game to lowly Penn tonight in order for Harvard to share the Ivy title with the Tigers. Faced with this unlikely scenario, Harvard's only realistic hopes of making its second-ever NCAA Tournament hinge on the announcement of at-large bids Tuesday night.
"We've spent the entire week talking about how we need to win this game, preferably by a lot," said co-captain Liz Sarles. "Columbia knows this could mean the tournament for us, and would love to play spoiler."
Recent losses to Princeton and No. 13 Boston University mean that Saturday's date with the Lions (11-5, 3-3) could make all the difference. A win would give the team a solid second-place finish in the conference and provide the NCAA selection committee with a compelling case.
Conversely, a loss would put some negative space between Harvard and the other teams vying for the tournaments final few berths, including UNH, BU, James Madison, and Ohio State.
"It's one of those games where if we win, it won't get us in on its own," junior back Eliza Dick said. "But if we lose, it will really hurt our chances."
The Crimson will look for its school-record sixth Ivy win against a Columbia squad enjoying the best year of its short history. Since going winless in 1998, Columbia has shown that it can compete with anyone in the conference.
Columbia lost a closer-than-expected 3-1 contest to Princeton earlier in the year. It has picked up the pace from that point, and is currently riding a three-game Ivy winning streak.
Last week, the Lions captured their most convincing conference win ever, a 5-1 triumph over Penn.
"I thought they were good last year," said Harvard Coach Sue Caples. "And they've only continued to improve."
Perhaps some of that improvement can be attributed to a certain Harvard alum. Anya Cowan '00, an all-conference selection in net last season, now works part-time with Columbia's Molly Starsia-Lasagna.
The Lion keeper has helped a once-porous defense clamp down and allow just 2.35 goals per Ivy outing in 2000--good for fourth in the conference. Still, she almost half the shots fired her way reach the back of the net. She probably represents Columbia's weakest link.
Cowan will watch the game from the Columbia sideline tomorrow and in that respect, the match will pit Harvard's recent past against its future. Freshman Katie Zacarian has more than lived up to the lofty expectations that surrounded her arrival in Cambridge and insertion into the starting lineup.
She has blanked Crimson opponents on six occasions, recording the most shutouts by a Harvard goalkeeper since Juliet Lamont '82 tallied nine. Her 0.97 goals allowed average and save percentage are second in the Ivy League to Princeton's Kelly Barril.
Zacarian and the Harvard defense will be tested by a potent one-two scoring punch. Junior midfielder Nikki Campbell has rewritten Columbia's record book. She leads the Ivy League in goals (15) and total points (36).
Campbell, however, isn't Columbia's most dangerous offensive threat.
Harvard's primary aim will be to shut down middle back Florencia Battilana. The native Argentinean has poured in 28 points out of the backfield this year, and will be the focal point of Harvard's defensive strategy.
"We're going to try to mark her out of the game early," Dick said. "She's easily their best player, and could cause some problems for us."
However, Columbia's dependence on those two sources of offensive punch should play into Harvard's hands.
"They're not as complete a team, despite having some good players," Sarles said. "Their strength lies up the middle, so we'll focus on working passes in and out, away from their strengths."
Should Harvard win tomorrow, its tournament status would still remain a mystery until Tuesday night.
Recent history raises cause for concern. Last year's Ivy runner-up, Princeton, also won six games, but failed to snatch an at-large bid.
However, this year's field is generally regarded to be more wide open. Amidst questions of competing conferences and rival conferences with play-in bids, one thing is clear.
"Tomorrow is a must win situation if we're to remain a bubble team," Caples said.
The key for the Crimson is to take care of business tomorrow, and leave the sweating for Tuesday night.