It was a year of change for the Harvard field hockey team in 2011. Following three seasons of substandard results, including a 3-14 campaign in 2010, the Crimson boasted a winning record in the final week of the season before a three-game skid ultimately dropped it to 8-9 on the year.
Still, it was Harvard’s best finish since 2007, and for much of the season the Crimson (8-9, 3-4 Ivy) made a serious bid for the conference title in a wide-open Ivy League championship race.
But perhaps the season’s biggest drama played out in the offseason, when the athletic department chose not to renew the contract of head coach Sue Caples, who had been with the program for 24 years.
“We weren’t given any details on the decision,” rising co-captain Kim Goh told The Crimson in December. “They just said that they talked to many people, and it was looked at from many different directions.”
Outgoing captain Georgia McGillivray declined to comment on Caples’ release, describing the situation as “internal stuff.”
The program has since moved forward, hiring former University of Maryland associate head coach Tjerk van Herwaarden, who spent seven years with the Terrapins before accepting his new position in Cambridge.
“The team had a lot of input in the interviewing process,” McGillivray says. “We really enjoyed getting to hear about [van Herwaarden’s] experience and his outlook, so we’re really excited.”
The timing of Caples’ departure from the program appeared all the more puzzling given the improved results Harvard displayed in 2011. The Crimson began the season with two wins over Holy Cross and Lafayette before dropping its next three contests, including the Ivy opener against Yale, a 5-1 defeat in New Haven.
But Harvard responded with a four-game winning streak, its longest since 2008. During the stretch, the Crimson moved to 2-1 in the Ivy League, besting Penn and Brown by a combined score of 8-1. The final game in the streak, a 2-1 overtime victory over Vermont, extended Harvard’s home record to a perfect 5-0.
Following a non-conference loss to Northeastern, the Crimson bounced back with a victory on the road against Cornell, improving its Ivy record to 3-1 and moving it into a first-place tie atop the Ancient Eight standings.
“It was really exciting to be among the top teams, like Princeton, Cornell, and Yale,” McGillivray says. “It showed us that the team had the potential to compete for the Ivy title.”
But the win over Cornell proved to be the high point of the season. Harvard dropped four of its last five games, narrowly missing out on its first winning record since 2004.
Following the Crimson’s trip to Ithaca, eventual conference co-champion Princeton brought Harvard back to earth in its brief challenge to Ivy League ascendancy with a dominating 4-0 win, in which the Tigers outshot the Crimson 23-10.
The Crimson rebounded with an overtime win over Colgate, in which freshman Noel Painter, the squad’s top scorer in 2011, had two goals, but a loss to Dartmouth eliminated Harvard from contention for the Ancient Eight title. Next up for the Crimson was a matchup against a powerful New Hampshire team on Senior Day with little else but pride to play for.
But Harvard put together perhaps its best overall effort of the season, giving the then-No. 10 Wildcats everything they could handle. On three separate occasions, the Crimson fell behind by a goal, but all three times Harvard equalized, the final time coming with under five minutes remaining in regulation off a score from freshman Catriona McDonald. Junior goalie Cynthia Tassopoulos, who led the conference in save percentage, did her best to stymie New Hampshire with 14 saves.