Senior Jake Samuelson looks to lead the Crimson in its first NCAA Tournament berth in 10 years. Harvard travels to Syracuse Sunday.
It’s been ten years since the Harvard men’s lacrosse team got a taste of what it was like to play in the NCAA tournament.
What has changed since then?
Not much, really.
The Crimson battled in a tough Ivy League just like they did a decade ago, failing to win the conference and still making it in as an at-large bid. Scott Anderson is still the head coach, and Princeton, Virginia, and Maryland are still near-perennial title-contenders. The records are a little different—Harvard posted a 6-6 mark this year compared to a 12-3 regular season in ’96—but the goal will be the same for the Crimson.
Another difference? The audience will be a bit bigger, as Harvard will be on ESPNU when they face Syracuse this Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Carrier Dome in the opening round of postseason play.
Although the Crimson advanced to the second round in 1996, the team realizes that this time won’t be as easy.
“Syracuse is maybe the hottest team in the tournament right now, but the NCAA [tournament] is all about experience,” Anderson said. “We played a strong schedule all year, so this is just another challenge.”
Harvard hopes that this strong schedule will help counter the fact that the Orange is making its 24th straight tournament appearance—the Orangemen are have won eight titles overall, the last championship coming just two years ago.
“That’s the Mecca of lacrosse, at least north of the Mason-Dixon line,” senior attackman Steve Cohen said. “That’d be the team you’d want to play, and where you’d want to play.”
It’s been an interesting week for Cohen and the rest of the Crimson’s players, especially the seniors.
Saturday’s loss to Dartmouth was the expected end to their careers for pretty much everyone—except the selection committee.
“I was in my dorm, getting ready to study for finals and go about life as a student,” Cohen said with a laugh. “A guy who’d graduated said, ‘you guys made the playoffs.’ So I called my brother and he said, ‘I think we made the tournament.’”
And as happy as the team is that they’ll get to play at least one more game, the players are quick to realize that the postseason will begin with Harvard having lost two in a row—the first time that’s happened all year.
“We’ll understand the other team, we have plenty of film and scouting reports,” Anderson said. “But the focus is really on our own efforts.”
Those efforts include a 13-6 setback two weeks ago at No. 2 Hofstra, who opens against Providence Sunday afternoon, and the 14-13 triple-overtime loss in the regular season finale against Dartmouth last weekend. But despite the rough stretch, the Crimson hasn’t done anything drastically different this week.
“The season kind of follows a natural progression, as you get farther and farther in,” Anderson said. “I would say if we had one major goal for this week, it would be to get as many people healthy as possible so we’re able to play the best lacrosse.”
Health has particularly been an issue in goal, where freshman Joe Pike was forced to play the entire game—almost 69 minutes—against the Big Green thanks to a virus that sidelined sophomore Evan O’Donnell. O’Donnell’s status for Sunday’s game is still in question.
“He’s back practicing, but he hasn’t been able to compete for over a week and a half,” Anderson said. “We’ll see how he looks in practice, how strong he feels, and if we feel that he can go, we’ll do what we’ve been doing.”
What Harvard has been doing this year—relying on its offensive pressure to take the focus off a defense which has struggled at times—has helped create more scoring chances for the team’s attackmen.
But many of those opportunities have failed to result in points. Although the Crimson has scored just two more goals than its opponents this season, it holds a commanding 78-shot advantage in attempts—something that must be corrected against an Orange squad that boasts three 20-goal scorers.
“We have to take quality shots, and we can’t win only scoring 13 goals on 73 shots,” Anderson said, referring to the final numbers of the Dartmouth game. “It’s especially important against Syracuse, a team that has a lot of offense.”
No matter what happens on Sunday, though, the opportunity to play against a team with the tradition and the lore of the Orange, on a magnified stage, no less, is one that the players are not taking lightly.
“Growing up as a kid watching lacrosse, it’s the biggest stage you can play on,” Cohen said. “As a little kid you couldn’t think of a better setting.”
Almost as important is proving to critics that a .500 team deserves its place in the field.
“It’s redemption in a way, because it comes out of the blue—nobody even watched the selection show,” Cohen said. “We have some added motivation to respond to the talk of, ‘Does Harvard deserve to be there?’”
As far as Anderson is concerned, that’s an easy answer.
“I think it’s certainly an affirmation of where we think our program is going, and now we want to do this on a consistent basis,” Anderson said. “I’ve done this. For these guys, this is something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”
—Staff writer Malcom A. Glenn can be reached at email@example.com.