W. Lax Adjusts to Life Without All-Ivy Harper

At the start of every season, clichés start flying out of the woodwork. “Hope springs eternal” may be the favorite this time of year.

It is likely being tossed around dozens of locker rooms, ballparks and sporting fields by athletes and coaches alike.

It happens to apply particularly well, however, to the Harvard women’s lacrosse team.

If asked to put money on a surprise turnaround team in the Ivy race this season, the Crimson would be lacrosse’s equivalent of the New England Patriots.

“Expectations for the season are huge,” co-captain Hilary Walton said. “We’re hungrier, more focused and ready for a challenge. I have so much confidence that we are going to do really well this season, with our ultimate goal being an NCAA bid.”

It’s not hard to find where that hunger come from.

Last season was an unequivocal disappointment. It was the first time in school history the Crimson had lost six Ivy League games in a single season.

Given that as a backdrop, Walton’s hopes for an NCAA berth may sound like a captain’s blind exuberance, but that’s not the case.

Harvard’s 1-6 Ivy record and 6-9 overall mark gives a skewed impression of the team’s past performance and depth of talent.

Those six victories included a 9-8, season-opening win against No. 20 UMass and a 7-6, overtime upset of No. 7 BU. During the year, the Crimson also gave No. 3 Princeton, No. 10 Dartmouth and No. 12 Cornell cause for concern while keeping the final score close.

This season, Harvard is expecting to move those moral victories into the win column. Consistent play from start to finish will be the key.

“We are mentally and physically more prepared than we have ever been,” Walton said. “We worked harder in the off-season than we ever have, but we have to be ready for every game because each team can test our abilities in different ways.”

That test starts this Saturday at UMass, with the Ivy opener scheduled at home against Brown on March 20.

The strength of this team lies in the backfield, with a core of returning midfielders and defenders expected to anchor the team.

That nucleus includes co-captain Heather Hussey, seniors Erin Kutner and Heather Gotha and junior Leslie Moroz. Kutner was a second team All-Ivy selection in 2001.

“Midfield and defense are our team’s biggest strengths this season,” said assistant coach Sara Nelson ’94. “Most of our talent and experience lies in these areas.”

The same cannot be said of the Crimson attack, where graduation has left a couple of glaring holes.

“Our attack is very young,” Nelson said. “Certainly the loss of Ali Harper [’01] leaves a hole.”

Harper scored 39 goals and recorded 12 assists for Harvard on her way to third-team All-American and first-team All-Ivy honors.

Her leadership will also be missed, but Hussey and Walton are certainly more than capable of filling that void.

After playing three seasons on defense, Walton recently moved up to attack to provide offense and much-needed leadership.

“Although she is new to the position, she brings a physical and vocal presence which we need and [she] will lead the attack,” Nelson said.

Alongside Walton, fellow senior Melissa Christino is expected to branch off somewhat from her traditional setup role and become an even greater scoring force.

“[Melissa] is an excellent feeder,” Nelson said. “She will also be asked to be a real scoring threat this year.”

She’ll have to be, as the Crimson doesn’t have Harper, who scored all four of Harvard’s goals against No. 1 Maryland, to rely on any more.

However, not having Harper may be a blessing in disguise.

“We feel that as a group, the [offense] will be able to step up and spread out some of the scoring responsibilities,” Nelson said.

More importantly, patience and composure in the attacking zone have been a real focus this preseason. The coaches and players believe that the new chemistry up front will help.

“Certainly this group is more poised and patient than last year’s attack,” Nelson said. “It’s much more balanced in terms of scoring ability.”

Kutner and Gotha will also be expected to provide offensive support from the backfield.

As the situation up front began to stabilize, the outlook in goal suddenly changed.

The Crimson’s starting goaltender, junior Nora Guyer, recently decided to take a year off. Sophomore Laura Mancini will be Harvard’s new No. 1 back-stopper.

“She is working extremely hard, and we have every confidence that she will rise to the occasion,” Nelson said.

The team will also be expecting some freshmen to contribute immediately.

Of the team’s eight newcomers, at least three and possibly four will likely be in the starting lineup for the season opener.

Elaine Belitsos should be an impact player as she brings excellent stick skills and scoring to the center of the midfield. The addition of Kelly Noon to the defense should help the transition game, while Catherine Sproul adds skill on the attack. Casey Owens is also expected to break into the lineup when healthy.

“We expect all the freshman to get some playing time across the board,” Nelson said. “They are one of the best classes we’ve had in years.”

That means a lot coming from Nelson, who was around for three Ivy championships during the Crimson’s run of seven consecutive titles in the late eighties and early nineties.

The middle of April will be a defining stretch for Harvard, asPrinceton and Dartmouth visit Cambridge within five days of each other.

Many seniors will also be circling March 30 on their calendars. That’s when the Crimson travel to New Haven to take on the Bulldogs. Harvard has lost to Yale each of the last three seasons.

“Our biggest rivals are Princeton, Dartmouth and Yale,” Walton said. “We have lost to Yale by one goal every year I have been here, and this year that’s going to change.”

With any luck, that and many other things.