The Harvard men’s water polo team will begin play in the Northern Championships when it takes on Fordham on Saturday in Providence, R.I.
The stakes are high in the matchup, as the top four squads in the seven-team tournament will advance to the CWPA Eastern Championships beginning in two weeks. The Crimson will need to take down the Rams if it hopes to extend its season.
“I’m fully confident we’ll [advance to Eastern Championships],” junior attacker Will Roller said. “We have to beat Fordham and then we’re in the top four. Fordham’s going to come out swinging, and I’d be disappointed if they weren’t. But we have guys coming back from injuries, we have a serious motivation coming off a number of losses, and our focus is really clear.”
Harvard (13-15, 4-2 CWPA) and Fordham (6-18, 2-4) faced off earlier this year when the Rams traveled to Blodgett Pool on Sept. 22. The Crimson held the lead for most of the game, eventually winning by a score of 12-7.
But Roller said Harvard will have to do a better job of taking advantage of scoring opportunities and playing more consistent defense to achieve a secure, clean victory.
“Going back to the tape…there were probably 30 opportunities to score that we did not capitalize on,” Roller said. “Five goals is a great spread to win by, but I think there’s a very large opportunity for improvement…. Truthfully if we were doing everything right, [Fordham] should not have scored some of [its goals].”
After winning only one of its first 13 games, the Rams have appeared to right the sinking ship in the latter stages of their season. After its 1-12 start to the season, Fordham has won five of its last 11 matches.
The Rams’ defense is highlighted by sophomore goalkeeper Noah LeBeau, who set a school record with his 21 saves in a recent 11-8 loss to Mercyhurst. A very young team, more than half of Fordham’s roster slots are filled by freshmen—putting them in situation similar to the Crimson.
“I think they’re a better team now than they were [when we last played],” Harvard coach Ted Minnis said. “They have a lot of freshmen on their team too, and those freshmen grow as the year goes on. I think we’re going to have to play our best game to keep it close and give ourselves an opportunity to win at the end.”
The Crimson squad boasts a sizeable group of seven rookies, and the freshmen have had a significant impact on the team; the Crimson’s three leading scorers, Ben Zepfel, Blake Lee, and Noah Harrison, are all first-years.
Harvard freshmen have excelled in all parts of the game as Lee ranks first on the team in assists, and the four leaders in steals have all been freshmen, with Lee, Harrison, Zepfel, and Robbie Fluegge accounting for more than half of the team total.
“[The freshmen] have really done a great job of producing,” Minnis said. “I knew coming in that we had a very talented freshman class and that they were going to show that in the pool. They’ve gone above expectations, though, [with] the way they assimilated into the system right away and have stayed productive all year. I’m very excited for the future of this program.”
Though the freshmen have excelled individually, the Crimson has had its fair share of up and down stretches this season. Immediately following a nine-game winning streak in September, Harvard experienced a nine-match losing streak that lasted for much of the next month. Many of these losses came in California against nationally ranked schools.
“If you want to be one of the better teams in our conference, you have to learn what it takes to get there every possession in a game,” Minnis said. “I think that’s what we learned playing against these top teams. We bring back the core nucleus of this team next year, so I think it’s been a great learning experience for them playing against that top talent.”
If the Crimson comes out on top against Fordham, it will play the winner of St. Francis and Connecticut College later on Saturday. Top-seeded Brown will take on either Iona or MIT in the other semifinal match.
Harvard is approaching the climax of its schedule, and a win against the Rams will add at least a few more games to the Crimson season.
“This is our goal. This has been our goal the entire season,” Roller said. “Now the opportunity’s there, and I think everyone on the team is ready to seize it. I’m fully confident in our ability to do it.”