Star freshman defender Lizzy Nichols of the Harvard women’s soccer team was playing in a soccer tournament this July when she received a call she never expected. Head coach Stephanie Erickson had left the Harvard soccer team after only one season to return to coach her alma mater, Northwestern.
The extraordinarily young soccer team—consisting of thirteen freshman, six sophomores, and a single senior—was suddenly left adrift without a coach.
“I was really surprised,” Nichols said. “I really wasn’t sure what to think. Nobody was expecting it.”
Worried, Nichols called assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Calise. Calise reassured her, promising that the program had a candidate in mind. Only nine days after Erickson left Harvard, Erica Walsh was announced as Erickson’s replacement as head coach.
The news delighted Nichols’ fellow freshman Christina Hagner. Hagner, twice a high school All-American out of San Francisco, Calif., already knew Walsh. Hagner had attended a soccer camp for potential national team players in December 2004—a camp run by Walsh in her position as the United States under-17 national coach.
“I was absolutely thrilled when I heard the news, because I had met Erica before,” Hagner said. “I knew that I had absolutely loved her and loved the experience of the camp.”
With more than half the team’s members new to Crimson soccer, the team journeyed to junior midfielder Megan Kerr’s house on Cape Cod before preseason for team bonding.
Since the team has returned to Harvard, Walsh has made an effort to make everyone comfortable. She has met individually with every member of the team to ensure that both freshman and upperclassmen are content and satisfied with the program.
“Coming in, I knew it was going to be a challenging and difficult dynamic,” said senior captain and defender Laura Odorczyk. “It must be nerve-wracking for them, but we have six freshmen starters who play the majority of games. [Walsh] has been the perfect coach for us because she’s so even-keeled and knowledgeable about the game.”
Hagner, too, is delighted to be on the team with so many freshmen and a new but familiar coach.
“I have absolutely loved it. We all get along really well,” she said. “[Walsh] has made the experience much easier. She brings a lot of humor to the team.”
Walsh’s newest policy manages to encourage both comedy and good practice habits. At the end of each training session, the team selects a team member who has had a personal best day in practice to wear a goofy hat. By choosing the team member who has achieved a personal best instead of the best overall player, the routine fosters hard work without creating rivalries.
Hagner also believes that Walsh and her coaching staff have done an excellent job helping the freshman prepare through the use of video.
“After every single game, they go through and take out clips,” Hagner said. “They show us things that we’ve done well as players and things we need to improve on. As the season has gone on, I’ve seen times where I’ve changed what I do because of the video.”
In Walsh’s three years as head coach at Dartmouth, she led the team to two Ivy League titles and three NCAA tournament appearances, twice reaching the Sweet 16. With Walsh as assistant coach, Florida State reached the Final Four last year.
Will Walsh be able to work her magic again at Harvard?
The team’s record, largely the product of difficult opening schedule and the extreme youth of the squad, currently lies at 3-8-1, with a 2-1 Ivy League mark.
However, the upcoming weeks will be critical as the Crimson plays four of the season’s final five games against Ivy League foes. Expectations will grow even higher in the coming years as this year’s giant freshman class matures.
But Hagner and Nichols are confident about the team’s future.
“I think this is the greatest coaching staff I’ve ever experienced,” Nichols said. “Both Mike and Erica are really ambitious about where they want the program to go and it’s really exciting to be a part of it.”