But on Saturday night, it was the best defensive effort of the year that propelled Harvard (2-4, 1-0 Ivy) to a thrilling 6-4 road win over Denver (5-5, 1-0 GWLL) in front of a bipartisan crowd of 1,481 fans at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium.
Almost 300 Crimson fans made the trip a mile above sea level to see the fourth-ever showdown between the two squads. What they witnessed was a Harvard defense that went the game’s final 35:58 without giving up a score to secure the first ever road win in the young history of the series. The Pioneer drought came in part because the Crmison offense maintained possession for the bulk of the second half.
“It was a low-scoring game, but I thought it was a good game both offensively and defensively,” Harvard coach Scott Anderson said. “I think our offense played with a lot of poise and possessed the ball well, which was something we asked them to do to allow the defense to play fresh.”
With the Crimson clinging to a 5-4 lead after senior attackman Greg Cohen stole an errant pass out of the air in the Denver zone and scored with 11:33 to play in the third quarter, senior attackman Evan Calvert had a number of chances to increase the lead. Denver had its chances, too, but sophomore goalie Joe Pike and the defense held on to enter the fourth quarter with a one-goal lead.
The final frame provided much of the same, until co-captain attackman Brian Mahler scored with just under two minutes to play in the game, effectively sealing the win.
“When it got down to it, we were real tired and they were real tired,” Mahler said. “Those last two minutes, we were just looking to do something to seal the victory, so I ran at the goal and tried to dunk it.”
The decisive goal didn’t come without a bit of controversy. After taking a pass from Denver native Carl Stenmark, Mahler came inches away from the crease, forcing the referees to refrain from immediately signaling the goal.
“Carle made a great pass right to me, and my defenseman just ran right past,” he said. “Fortunately, it didn’t get taken away.”
It was Harvard’s ability to take away the Pioneers’ bread and butter—their up-tempo pace—that made the difference. The Crimson got on the board first, when Stenmark took a pass from Cohen, faked a shot, and scored exactly one minute into the game. After a Denver goal just under four minutes later, Mahler scored the first of his two goals on the night. The Pioneers responded to even the score at 2, until freshman midfielder Jason Duboe took advantage of a long Harvard possession and a nice feed from sophomore midfielder Max Motschwiller to give the Crimson a 3-2 lead after a quarter.
Two Denver goals in the second quarter sandwiched an unassisted score from Calvert, before the Crimson put the clamp down in the second-half shutout.
“I think it was a really good formula,” Anderson said of Harvard’s long possessions and the resulting rest for the defense. “When our defense was in, I think they were playing at their best.”
The Crimson dominated the possession battle thanks to another great faceoff performance from co-captain midfielder John Henry Flood, who won 10 of his 13 attempts. When the Pioneers did get opportunities, Pike was there to close the door.
“Tonight he played great,” Anderson said. “He was a great leader for us.”
“Now we just have the defense confident and supporting him,” Mahler said of Pike. “If he plays like that, we’re going to have a great rest of the season.”
The rest of the season begins on the road this Saturday, when Harvard will put its two-game win streak on the line against the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.
”The next one’s a really tough one,” Anderson said. “Cornell’s been beating up on everybody, but I think we feel pretty good about our work ethic and what we can do if we do work hard.”
—Staff writer Malcom A. Glenn can be reached at email@example.com.