A switch to varsity after three decades as a club sport. A 252-61 scoring advantage over opponents in the fall. A four-game winning streak to take down No. 1 seed Dartmouth and capture an Ivy League Championship.
The Harvard rugby team (6-2, 5-1 Ivy) has accomplished a lot in the past year. But it doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
The No. 11 Crimson will continue its inaugural varsity season outside the Ancient Eight this spring. That means unfamiliar—and more experienced—opponents. For Harvard, it means a chance to see how the team measures up against the best and a chance to prove itself on a national level.
“[This spring] is us having an opportunity to make a statement, not just in the Ivy League—which I think we did successfully in the fall—but on a broader national level, that varsity rugby is worth investing in and is great for the players and the schools,” co-captain Xanni Brown said.
The opportunity does not come without challenges. As the Crimson moves into uncharted territory, it will face a series of never-before-seen squads that have already achieved success on the national level.
The team’s first big test is this upcoming Saturday against No. 4 American International College. AIC (5-2) defeated Quinnipiac this fall right after the Bobcats dealt Harvard a 39-10 loss in the Crimson’s season opener. Harvard will look to shut down the offensive production of senior prop Jessica Davis, who led the Yellow Jackets with 16 tries in the fall.
“I think that we’re going to be tested for sure, and I think that we are probably going to have some setbacks,” Harvard coach Sue Parker said. “But I think they are the kind of setbacks that we [will] need and we are going to learn from.”
The Crimson’s decisive 22-5 victory over West Chester in its spring opener on Saturday proved that the team can compete against quality competition outside the Ivy League. As the squad’s first game in over four months, the win offered an early boost of confidence for Harvard.
“[West Chester] was one of the teams in which we didn’t know what to expect,” co-captain Brandy Machado said. “There was some trepidation among players because of that. But we went out there, and we played our game.”
As the season progresses, the Crimson will continue to focus on its own game. Facing a new slate of top-tier teams for the first time, Harvard will look to follow its own game plan and style of play, making adjustments as needed.
After a three week interlude following this weekend’s AIC contest, the Crimson will host Boston College. Harvard looks to repeat its success from last season, when the team downed the Eagles, 42-0.
Amidst a demanding schedule, the Crimson plans to focus on more than just wins and losses.
“We like to look at the game in a much more methodical way…to look at what went well, what didn’t go well, and truly map out our improvement,” Parker said. “We’ll take a look at how we perform in each game and figure out where we are.”
Harvard will hit the road the first weekend in April, travelling to No. 1 Penn State. The Nittany Lions have won four of the past five national championships and will provide a litmus test for the Crimson just weeks before the season-ending national tournament.
Harvard’s success will depend on strong offensive contributions from Brown, the team’s leading scorer. Senior scrumhalf Shelby Lin and junior flanker Lenica Morales-Valenzuela have also been pivotal components of the Crimson’s scoring production.
After facing Penn State, Harvard returns home for a matchup against a local club team, Beantown. This game has special meaning for the Crimson, as it will put the team up against many familiar faces. Among these will be Harvard’s own assistant coach, Kelly Seary ’09, who plays flyhalf for the Beantown club.
Heading into the national championships, the team will rely heavily on the expertise and experience of Parker. Before joining the Crimson this past August, Parker headed the women’s rugby program at Navy from 2002-2008 and 2011-2013 and led the team to several Final Four appearances.
“Coaches tend to coach similarly from one year to the next when they’re at the same program,” Parker said. “[We will] use some of that information to put our defensive and tactical game plans to work to exploit other teams’ weaknesses and hopefully neutralize some of their strengths.”
The team has set a high bar going into the season with the goal to become the best collegiate team in the nation. But this does not just mean winning nationals.
“We want to be a team…that people respect,” Machado said.