The NCAA tournament does not begin for another two weeks, but for the Harvard men’s lacrosse team, the playoffs start now.
With its back against the wall, the Crimson faces No. 19/20 Yale tomorrow in a must-win regular season finale for the third straight year. A victory in New Haven would advance the Crimson (6-7, 2-3 Ivy) to the four-team Ivy League tournament next weekend; a loss would end Harvard’s season unless Dartmouth (1-4 in conference play) can upset Brown in Providence.
After topping Dartmouth and Brown in its first two conference contests of the year (the latter win giving them the tournament tiebreaker), Harvard has lost three straight Ivy games to Cornell, Penn, and Princeton to put its playoff aspirations in jeopardy.
The Crimson would have the chance to get retribution on either the Big Red or the Tigers next weekend in the Ivy tournament—the winner of which moves on to the NCAAs—but it must top the Bulldogs (8-4, 3-2) to get there first.
“The Harvard-Yale rivalry speaks volumes in itself,” tri-captain Terry White said. “They’re going to come ready to play, so it’s up to us to bring it.”
Doing so against the Bulldogs will be no easy task, as Yale comes in riding a six-game winning streak. But the Bulldogs have not been dominant over that span, as Yale’s previous eight matches have been decided by an average of just 1.4 goals.
Last weekend, the Bulldogs edged then-No. 19 Bryant, 11-10, on a tally by senior attack Matt Gibson with 1.7 seconds left in the second overtime. Gibson, a two-time All-American, paces Yale with 25 goals, 15 assists, and 40 points on the year. Junior Deron Dempster and freshman Conrad Oberbeck have each scored 19 times, while senior Greg Mahony has registered 17 goals and sophomore Brandon Mangan has added 16 as part of the Bulldog’s well-balanced offense.
“They’re very similar to us in that they have a pretty seasoned team, so on the whole, we’re all pretty familiar with the guys we’ll be playing,” White said. “I think we match up pretty well with them.”
Two players, senior Jeff Cohen (45 goals) and sophomore Daniel Eipp (24 goals, 17 assists), have dominated the scoring for Harvard this season. Tri-captain Kevin Vaughan has scored 15 times and leads the Crimson with 19 assists, and freshman Will Walker has registered 13 tallies during his freshman campaign. But Harvard’s attack struggled against the Tigers, scoring just five goals.
“On offense, we really need to move the ball better,” Vaughan said. “We’re too stagnant, we’re taking the first thing we can get instead of the best shot, and we’re not getting long enough possessions, which puts too much pressure on the defense.”
The man the Crimson offense will be looking to improve against will be Yale goalie Jack Meyer. The sophomore earned the starting job in week four and on the year has accumulated a .468 save percentage, which ranks just seventh-best in the Ancient Eight. In net for the Crimson during tomorrow’s must-win game will either be junior Harry Krieger (.519 save percentage) or rookie Jake Gambitsky (.458).
“Whoever ends up in there, I’m sure they’ll be ready to go,” White said. “We feel pretty cownfident with both of them.”
A victory would give Yale its longest winning streak in 22 years and the No. 3 seed next weekend, while a Harvard victory would also net it the third position. In a similar situation last year, the Crimson clinched the third seed behind a dominant Krieger—who made 16 saves—and relegated Yale to the fourth position by topping the Bulldogs, 9-5, at Harvard Stadium.
That performance with its season on the line was a far cry from the previous year, when in another must-win game, the Crimson fell in New Haven, 9-8, denying Harvard a spot in the Ivy tournament and ending its season.
“This year’s game is somewhat reminiscent of our sophomore year,” White said. “We remember the seniors then and how disappointed they were, so that’s given us a little extra boost and a little extra incentive in this game.”
But to avoid the fate of the class of 2010, the Crimson’s current seniors and their teammates will have to play their best game of the season in what otherwise could very likely be the final contest of their collegiate careers.
“We have a ton of potential, talent, and character, but we really just need to put together a complete game and play the level of lacrosse we know we’re capable of,” White said. “It’s going to come down to playing loose and playing confident and believing in our schemes, believing in our systems, just taking it to Yale for the full 60 minutes.... If we can do that, I feel very confident about our chances.”
—Staff writer Scott A. Sherman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org