Amazing freshman transform "rebuilding year" into No. 9 national ranking and first-round bye in the NCAA Tournament
In what many believed was going to be a rebuilding year, the Harvard women's soccer team shocked everyone but itself by roaring to one of the most successful seasons in the program's history.
Despite fielding a roster with a strong, deep corps of experienced seniors, Coach Tim Wheaton and the Crimson (14-2-1, 7-0 Ivy) found themselves relying on a host of talented freshmen to guide the team to victory from the season's outset.
Four rookie players found themselves in the starting lineup from the beginning of the season--unusual for the Harvard program--and several others saw heavy action. With such an inexperienced group thrown into the NCAA soccer fray, expectations of inconsistency and anxiety naturally arose. But to the surprise of most doubters, the freshmen proved up to the task.
"We definitely had more confidence in ourselves then the rest of the community did," co-captain Jess Larson said. "You can never be sure of how freshmen will play, but as soon as we saw them in practice, we knew we would be fine."
The Crimson opened the season with a 4-1-1 start, with its only loss coming against a weaker New Hampshire squad on the road, in a game where the freshmen were not permitted to travel and play because of first-year orientation.
After battling to a 1-1 tie against then-No.13 Hartford on a miserable day at Ohiri Field, Harvard became virtually unstoppable and won the last 10 games of the season. Included in the run were victories over Top 10 opponents Brigham Young at home and Connecticut on the road.
The Crimson also cruised to a perfect 7-0 Ivy record, including a 2-1 victory over defending Ivy League champion Dartmouth, avenging a loss at the hands of the Big Green the year before. Harvard finished the regular season with a 4-0 victory over Brown to complete its undefeated Ivy League season and to claim the league crown.
"At the beginning of every season we get together as a team and set our goals, and this year winning the Ivy was definitely at the top of our list," Larson said. "It was especially nice for us to come back and win after losing last year to Dartmouth."
Harvard finished its sensational regular season ranked No. 9 in the country and No. 1 in the Northeast, thus earning a first-round bye in the NCAA Tournament.
In the second round of the tournament, Harvard hosted a Boston College team that it had defeated 4-0 on the road just a month before. In a stunning upset, however, the Eagles frustrated the Crimson offense, defeating Harvard 1-0 and prematurely ending its season.
"I definitely feel that having so many starting freshmen without a lot of experience affected us in the tournament," Larson said. "But our freshmen were incredible all year and we wouldn't have made it to that point without them."
Despite the disappointing end to its season, the team's performance was clearly a great success considering its early-season expectations.
The Crimson entered the season with the daunting task of replacing a stellar cast of senior stars. Among those lost to graduation were midfielder Emily Stauffer, forward Naomi Miller and backs Jaime Chu and Devon Bingham, all perennial All-Ivy selections.
The loss of its Second Team All-Ivy goalkeeper Anne Browning--who left the team to concentrate on crew as a senior--further added to Harvard's worries.
Led by co-captains Larson and Beth Zotter, however, the 1999 version of the Crimson proved itself a worthy successor to the previous year's squad.
Larson anchored one of the stingiest defenses in the country, repeatedly thwarting the opposition's scoring opportunities from the sweeper position. Senior back Gina Foster and junior back Lauren Corkery completed an impressive Crimson backfield that relieved much of the pressure from the loss of Browning.
Further bolstering the Harvard defense was the surprising play of freshman goalkeeper Cheryl Gunther, who proved more than able to fill into Browning's shoes. The rookie allowed just six goals during the regular season for a .40 goals-against average--both Harvard records.
For the regular season, the Crimson allowed just eight goals--the lowest total in the nation--on defense in 16 games. Harvard's dominance was stunning down the stretch, as the Crimson allowed just three goals in the 10-game winning streak to end the season.
For her standout play as the defensive anchor, Larson was unanimously selected as Ivy League Player of the Year. Foster joined Larson on the All-Ivy First Team, while Corkery and Gunther earned Second Team honors. Gunther was also named the league's Rookie of the Year.
Zotter and seniors Ashley Berman and Julia Blain provided stability and superior playmaking ability from the midfield to spark the Crimson offense. Freshman Bryce Weed also proved crucial to the Crimson attack.
And when it came to scoring, it was two freshmen who took the lead. Rookie forwards Beth Totman and Joey Yenne demonstrated an uncanny nose for the net, as they netted 19 and 18 points, respectively. Those tallies were good for tops on the squad and for second- and fourth-best in the Ivy League, respectively.
Sophomore forward Colleen Moore also provided a much-needed offensive spark, netting 15 points of her own on the season.
Berman and Weed earned First Team All-Ivy honors, while Zotter, Yenne and Totman made their way onto the Second Team.
Having relied heavily on a strong senior leadership throughout the season, the Crimson will clearly feel the loss of its graduating players. However, if this season showed anything about Harvard, it demonstrated that the underclassmen were certainly ready to handle the pressure of Division I soccer.
Up front, Totman, Yenne and Moore--the team's three leading scorers--will return to lead the Crimson attack. And in the midfield Weed will be joined by fellow freshman Orly Ripmaster, who also had a solid rookie season, netting eight points on the year.
On the defensive side, Harvard will certainly find replacing Larson a nearly impossible task. Nonetheless, a talented group of defenders seems poised to pick up the slack. Corkery will likely fill in for Larson at the sweeper position and will be joined by freshman Katie Urbanic, who was impressive in her rookie campaign.
And perhaps most importantly, Wheaton will again lead the Crimson onto the field. For his team's performance on the 1999 season, Wheaton was named Soccer Buzz Magazine's National Coach of the Year, as well as the NSCAA/Adidas Women's Northeast Region Coach of the Year.
"[Wheaton] has a tough job, because we have so many girls with strong opinions," Larson said. "But he has done a great job listening to everyone and making them feel involved. He puts so much time and energy into the team, and it really shows."
Wheaton's obvious on-field successes--four Ivy League titles in five years--coupled with the return of such a talented group of players, makes Harvard a good bet to make some noise once again next season.