It might be the pinnacle of Harvard’s basketball hysteria, but sandwiched between this weekend’s two men’s basketball games, another Crimson team will embark on a journey which it hopes will end in success on the national stage.
Coming off of its winningest season since the 1990s, the Harvard men’s lacrosse team lost only one starter to graduation while adding what is regarded as one of the nation’s best freshmen classes. The team’s ambitions have adjusted accordingly: the No. 14/15 Crimson aims to win its first Ivy League Championship since 1990 and compete for a national title. The season opens at noon on Saturday against Vermont at Soldiers Field,
“For us this year, the sky is the limit,” co-captain Terry White said.
Before head coach Chris Wojcik took the reins last season, Harvard had finished with a winning record in exactly one of its previous nine seasons. Since 1996, the Crimson has qualified for the NCAA tournament only once, a 2006 trip that ended with a first round loss to Syracuse.
But that trend of mediocrity has come to an end, says Wojcik, thanks to talented players, trusting coaches, and ever-growing confidence.
Harvard posted a 10-6 record in 2011, its best regular-season performance since 1998. InsideLacrosse.com ranked the team as the nation’s 14th best at season’s end. But the Crimson’s dreams of an NCAA tournament berth were dashed after a 15-6 loss in the Ivy League Championship game at the hands of rival Cornell, who went on to lose to eventual national champion Virginia in the NCAA quarterfinals.
Still, says co-captain Kevin Vaughan, the season represented an important change in the culture of lacrosse at Harvard.
“It’s no longer going out there just with the expectation of competing. We expect to go out and not just compete with other teams, we expect to win every single game,” he said. “It’s exciting to see that attitude take hold.”
And now, in Wojcik’s second season at the helm, the Crimson appears to have the talent to back up those expectations. The squad returns nine of ten starters from last year’s team, including four of its top five scorers. Vaughan, fellow co-captain Paul Pate, senior midfielder Daniel DiMaria, and sophomore attackman Daniel Eipp all return after garnering All-New England honors last season; Eipp was also named NEILA Rookie of the Year.
Add to that an incoming freshmen class which boasts six top-100 prospects and is, according to InsideLacrosse.com, “arguably the strongest Ivy recruiting class in at least a decade,” and Harvard appears poised to join the ranks of the nation’s elite programs.
Among the freshmen class’s top recruits are midfielders Sean Mahon and Keegan Michel, defenseman Steven Jahelka, the nation’s eighth-ranked recruit as a senior, Jake Gambitsky, the top-ranked goalie in the nation coming out of high school, and attackman Will Walker. Walker joins his older brother, junior defenseman Jack Walker, on the team, as does fellow freshman Matt Scalise, who joins older brother Mark, a senior midfielder.
“It’s a very talented class and more importantly it’s a group of high character individuals,” Wojcik said. “They’ve come in and competed since day one. We expect them to be major contributors over the next four years.”
But even with the influx of young talent the team’s success will still hinge on the leadership of its veterans. That leadership starts with the three captains: White, Pate, and Vaughan, who is serving his second year in the role.
“The captains have done a great job of creating an atmosphere where everybody is working hard,” Jahelka said. “Over [winter break], I wanted to train hard because I knew how hard all of my buddies were working, and that attitude starts with them.”
The Crimson will look to White, a preseason All-New England pick, and Vaughan to continue their scoring ways as they hold down the midfield unit. Pate, Wojcik says, will be expected to anchor the Harvard defense.
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