If the old adage that defense wins championships is true, then the Harvard women’s soccer team just might punch its second straight ticket to the NCAA Tournament this season.
Entering Ivy League play this weekend, the Crimson (5-2-0) has surrendered just three goals in its first seven games and is tied for fewest goals allowed among Ivy League teams with Cornell (5-0-0) and No. 24 Yale (6-2-0).
Harvard’s five shutouts are also tied for tops in the league with the Bulldogs.
The dangerous flip side for the Crimson—and the biggest obstacle in the team’s quest for the Ivy League title and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament that is associated with it—is on the offensive side of the ball. While the Big Red and Yale have complemented their strong defenses with explosive play on the offensive end to the tune of a combined 28 goals, Harvard has managed just five goals so far this season, with each of its five victories ending with final scores of 1-0.
This offensive drought is not a new trend for the Crimson. At this point in the season last year, Harvard had managed just eight goals, and three of those goals came in one game.
This year, new head coach Stephanie Erickson brings her own playing experience as a forward and her aggressive approach to the helm of the Crimson. In an interview with Harvard Magazine earlier this year, she stressed the importance of taking risks on the offensive end and playing to win, rather than playing not to lose.
The new approach has been slow in coming, but the team hopes that it will lead to a slew of goals during Ivy League play.
“We’ve had a lot of opportunities and we just haven’t put the ball in the net,” freshman forward Erin Wylie said. “We’re a young team, so the more games we play, the more of those we’ll put away.”
Indeed, the Crimson is also noteworthy among the Ivy League teams for its youth. Harvard routinely fields a starting lineup that includes four freshmen (Wylie, back Nicky Rhodes, midfielder Rachael Lau, and midfielder Allison Keeley) and three sophomores (midfielder Megan Merritt, forward Jamie Greenwald, and back Michelle Hull) among its eleven field players.
“It’s good playing against older girls, because they think, ‘[she’s] just a freshman,’” Wylie said. “You come out as the underdog.”
Harvard also has a young coaching staff, as former head coach Tim Wheaton became an Assistant Director of Athletics during the offseason. Erickson, 29, hails from Northwestern and formerly held coaching positions at Stanford and Cal. She brought aboard Mike Calise—a 1997 graduate of Boston College who has held coaching positions at Arizona State and Princeton—as her top assistant and recruiting coordinator and also helped hire Kristin DePlatchett, a star player who graduated from North Carolina in 2002, to work with the goalies.
With a high concentration of new blood, veteran leadership has become even more vital this year than in seasons past. Co-captains Laura Odorczyk and Katie Shields have risen to the occasion and, along with senior Sara Sedgwick, Hull, and Rhodes, they have formed an almost impenetrable defense. The Crimson hopes that it can be the foundation for a successful season like the one that Harvard had in 2004, when it received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament before succumbing to powerhouse Connecticut in the first round, 2-1.
“Katie has done a great job, and Sedge has done a great job [as well],” said Rhodes. “They’ve all been great to work with. It’s easier when you’re playing with girls like that.”
Shields has played every single minute in goal for the Crimson this season. After entering the season with seven career shutouts, the 2004 Second-Team All-Ivy goalie has already posted five goose eggs on the scoreboard so far this year.
In addition to this week’s game against Penn (3-1-1), the Crimson will travel to play the Bulldogs, Cornell, and Columbia (4-2-1) on the road. Harvard will host games versus Brown (4-4-0), Dartmouth (4-2-1), and Princeton (1-3-2).
Those seeking to assess the strength of the Ivy League this year need look no further than the Tigers. Currently the only team in the group with a losing record, Princeton is far from a pushover, as it was undefeated in the Ivy League last year and battled all the way to the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament before losing to UCLA.
The silver lining for the Crimson is that the impressive strength of the Ivy League schedule means that the Ivy League champion is often not the only conference team to participate in the Tournament. Last year, Princeton was joined by at-large bids Yale and Harvard in the postseason.
The Crimson begins its pursuit of the Ivy title on Ohiri Field this Saturday against the Quakers. As 1-0 winners against Harvard last year, though now playing without graduated senior Katy Cross ‘05, the all-time leading scorer in school history, Penn will be the first conference opponent for Harvard this year, and thus represent a unique challenge.
“We try to treat every team the same,” said Rhodes. “But, obviously, the Ivy League means a lot in terms of the Tournament.”
—Staff writer Jonathan P. Hay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.