Talk about bad timing.
In 2000, the Harvard women's soccer team hit its lowest point at exactly the wrong point in the season. After falling 2-1 to last-place Columbia in overtime, the Crimson officially closed out the regular season with five straight losses. For a team that was depending on an at-large selection to the NCAA Tournament, this was not exactly the best impression to leave in the minds of the selection committee.
Still, Harvard women's soccer Coach Tim Wheaton gathered his team together the night after the Columbia loss to watch the tournament selection show live. Emotions were mixed as the program came on. To some, disappointment appeared imminent.
The final verdict on the Crimson's postseason fate came quickly enough, as the host of the selection show began announcing the seedings for the tournament one by one.
Miami of Ohio.
And then-out of nowhere-Harvard.
Well, maybe not out of nowhere. Harvard started the season ranked No. 17 in the nation. The Crimson boasted an incoming freshman class that was ranked 19th in the nation to go along with the seventh-best recruit class from a year before. So don't be fooled-there was plenty of promise attached to this group from the beginning.
But a whole lot happened between the preseason and the start of the NCAA Tournament.
For starters, there were injuries. Lots of them. When the Crimson took the field for its season opener against Texas A&M on Sept. 3, it was without both its starting goalkeeper-1999 Ivy League Rookie of the Year Cheryl Gunther-and its leading scorer from a year ago, Beth Totman. Gunther eventually returned three games into the season, but Totman never made a full recovery from her shin sprains and missed the entire year.
The loss of Totman was a major hit to the Crimson's already-depleted scoring unit. In the preseason, the Crimson had already learned that sophomore Caitlin Butler would be out for the year after tearing her ACL. In addition, sophomore Bryce Weed-who led the team in Ivy scoring one year ago-was forced to miss time with a knee injury.
The issue suddenly became who would score the goals. In the early going, it was sophomore forward Joey Yenne, who had finished second on the team in scoring in 1999. This year, the First Team All-Ivy pick did the work of two players, scoring just one fewer goal than she and Totman had combined for in 1999. Through the first three games of the year, Yenne had already notched four goals.
And then came Brown.
On Sept. 23, the Bears-the last-place finisher in the Ivy League in 1999-shut the Crimson out in a stunning 2-0 upset. Yenne was held scoreless and no one else had picked up the slack. Harvard was now 2-0 in games when Yenne scored and 0-2 in the games she didn't.
The moral of the story was this-if the Crimson was going to go anywhere this season, it could not rely on Yenne alone. Other players would need to step up.
And they did. The first to answer the call was freshman midfielder Caitlin Fisher. The fleet-footed Fisher-who ran the wing opposite sophomore Orly Ripmaster this season-netted both the Crimson's goals in a 2-1 win over Loyola Marymount. The Crimson didn't know it then, but the win would be the first in a string of eight victories.
One by one, over the course of the winning streak, a different Harvard player stepped forward to assume the scoring burden. In the Crimson's 1-0 blanking of San Diego State, freshman midfielder Katie Westfall scored the game's only goal. It was the second strike of the year for Westfall, who would go on to garner six goals and six assists en route to Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors.
In Harvard's next match against then-No. 23 B.C.-the same team that eliminated Harvard from the NCAA tournament last year-it was senior midfielder Meredith Stewart who rose to the occasion. Stewart, who registered more points this year than in her first three seasons combined, tallied both goals in the Crimson's thrilling 2-1 overtime victory.
Then, against Cornell, it was junior forward Colleen Moore who scored two of Harvard's goals in a 3-1 win. Against Yale, it was Yenne. Versus Princeton, it was both Yenne and Westfall. And so on and so on.
Eventually, however, the goals stopped coming and Harvard was whitewashed in its next three games, losing to Penn State, UConn and Dartmouth. The loss to the Big Green sent then-No. 11 Harvard plummeting in the rankings, but more importantly, it crippled the Crimson's chances at defending its 1999 Ivy championship.
Two games later, the missed chance at back-to-back titles was the least of Harvard's problems. After falling to Hartford and lowly Columbia in its final two games of the year, Harvard's hopes at making the postseason appeared shot.
But then the soccer gods-or more specifically, the selection committee-smiled on Harvard in a big way. In an apparent bow to the Crimson's strength of schedule, Harvard not only received a berth to the tournament, but also received a rather friendly draw. The Crimson would play at home and against Quinnipiac, a team making its first-ever tourney appearance.
The game was certainly winnable, but only if someone could score at least once. That was easier said than done-the Crimson had mustered just two goals in its last five games.
This time, the hero would be the unlikeliest one yet.
Less than a week after she broke her hand against Columbia, senior forward Ashley Mattison netted both of Harvard's goals-her first two scores of the season-to lift the Crimson over the Braves.
It was an uplifting victory for a squad that had not won a game in almost three weeks. After Quinnipiac, though, the Crimson's draw got a lot tougher. Its second round opponent-Hartford-had already defeated Harvard 2-1 during the regular season. Still, the Crimson had played the Hawks closely enough in that earlier meeting that it was confident about its chances.
Plus, the Crimson had Mattison. The senior's incredible scoring binge continued against the Hawks, as she sacrificed her body to head a loose ball past the Hartford keeper for a first-half strike. The goal proved to be the game-winner as Harvard stomped to a 3-0 upset victory and earned the right to face the No. 1 team in the land-Notre Dame-in the Sweet Sixteen.
To say the least, the Crimson faced an uphill battle against the top-ranked team in the country. Still, on a bitterly cold night in South Bend, Ind., Harvard battled Notre Dame valiantly, denying the Irish any goals in the run of play. If not for two goals on corner kicks, the game might very well have gone scoreless through the end of regulation.
As it was, however, the Crimson had trouble mustering any significant threat on offense and fell 2-0. The end had finally come to Harvard's improbably run.
The Crimson had plenty of reason to be proud.
Said Wheaton: "Considering how hard we played, the injuries we've had, and the tough schedule we play, there's no shame in losing in the round of sixteen."
Indeed, the Crimson had advanced further than any Harvard team since 1997. And Notre Dame went on to advance all the way to the tournament quarterfinals. There was certainly no shame in the Crimson's performance.
In fact, getting to that third-round game can only be considered a triumph in itself. In that sense, the real ending to the epic tale of the 2001 season-indeed the happy ending-came in Hartford. For that was where Harvard rallied all the way back from its lowest point. That was where Harvard avenged its earlier loss to Hartford. And that was where Harvard redeemed itself.