On Nov. 6, 2004, Harvard field hockey defeated Columbia for its 11th win of the season and a share of the Ivy League title.
Seven years later, that season stands as the last time the Crimson finished the year with a winning record. But all of that can change tonight, when Harvard (8-8, 3-3 Ivy) heads to the Big Apple to take on a familiar foe.
“It’s really been an exciting year, a turn-around year.” Crimson coach Sue Caples said. “You know, 8-8 sounds like an average season, but this team’s done a tremendous job bringing passion out to the field every day and really turning things around.”
Both the Lions (8-8, 4-2) and Harvard are riding two-game losing streaks after disappointing weekends in which the pair lost a total of four games by a combined five points. Columbia is currently tied for third place in the Ancient Eight, while the Crimson sits in fifth.
A win to close out the season would propel either team into the top half of the conference, a spot neither has been in since both achieved the feat in 2007.
“They’re a strong team that has had a terrific season,” Caples said. “We’re just watching film, looking for things to exploit. We feel that if we play our game, we’re going to see positive results.”
Tonight’s match also marks the last time co-captains Carly Dickson and Georgia McGillivray will suit up for Harvard. The two Victoria, British Columbia natives grew up playing together in the Pacific Northwest and are the lone remnants of the class of 2012. Together, they have started every game in their tenures with the Crimson.
“Carly and I have known each other for what seems like forever,” McGillivray said. “We’ve really grown up together. Being a captain with her has been extremely easy and comfortable.”
Despite their successes as annual All-Ivy honorees, the pair endured a 14-37 career record coming into 2011, in part due to a lack of depth.
“Those first three years, I don’t think Carly and Georgia ever came off the field,” Caples said. “They were, and are, the face of Harvard field hockey. But with the speed and athleticism of this freshman class and the implementation of our new system, now they’re getting an extra breather here and there.”
That new system is one that puts a premium on substitutions. Caples had tried to implement the strategy in the spring, but it was difficult to do so with a depleted roster. But with seven freshmen contributing regularly and a number of two-sport athletes returning for the fall, the team is now able to rotate players in and out every 10 minutes or so, and thus operate at a much faster pace.
“The whole freshman class has been great,” McGillivray said. “They’ve brought a new level of speed to the attacking line that’s allowed everyone to rotate and substitute quickly. In my four years here I’ve never seen a freshman class come in and contribute so significantly across the board like this.”
Most prominent amongst the rookies is Noell Painter, who is currently first on the team and top-ten in the Ancient Eight in goals (eight), assists (five) and points (21).
While the new system has benefited the offense, a lack of depth in the defense has resulted in the Crimson giving up the most shots in the Ivy League.
“We’re a little lean in the backfield,” Caples said. “Whenever Georgia comes out, I sort of hold my breath. It’s not for lack of confidence in the rest of the defense, it’s just she’s so valuable. Luckily we can always count on having Cynthia [Tassopoulos] back there.”
Tassopoulos’ junior campaign has been the talk of the Ancient Eight. The goalie currently leads the conference in saves (148), saves per game (9.25) and save percentage (.813) by healthy margins. Tassopoulos not only keeps Harvard in games with her saves, but also with her ability to organize the defense in front of her.
“Cynthia is extraordinary,” McGillivray said. “She’s such an important organizer and communicator for the defenders and midfielders. She definitely keeps us in line.”
Caples’ mantra this season has been “improve one percent every day.” In order for the Crimson to come away with a victory and give Dickson and McGillivray a suitable end to their illustrious careers, that cumulative improvement is going to have to show on the field.
“A win would be great, but I’m thrilled with how this season has gone already,” McGillivray said. “As long as we can build on what we’ve been doing these last couple of weeks, I think we should be great.”
—Staff writer Alexander Koenig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.