By virtue of its Ivy League regular season title, the men’s lacrosse team will play host to the Ivy League Tournament this weekend with a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line.
The four-team bracket kicks off on Friday at Harvard Stadium, when second-seeded Cornell (11-3, 5-1 Ivy) will take on third-seeded Penn (9-3, 4-2).
Following that contest, top-seeded Harvard (9-5, 5-1) will take on fourth-seeded Yale (9-4, 3-3) under the lights in a rematch of the game that clinched a share of the Ancient Eight regular season title for the Crimson, its first since 1990.
“Our defense has got to try to stop their offense; they’re really good offensively,” Harvard coach Chris Wojcik ’96 said. “There’s really nothing that we’re trying to do differently [from the last meeting], just trying to do everything that we do better.”
While Harvard’s 11-10 win over the Bulldogs last week was certainly historic, the upcoming game between the two archrivals could prove even more significant.
With both teams currently on the bubble for potential bids into the NCAA Tournament, the loser of Friday’s game will likely be denied a place in the 18-team field.
This win-or-go-home atmosphere only serves to increase the stakes of the matchup in what has been one of the strongest years for the conference in recent memory.
All four tournament teams are ranked in the top 20 nationally, and while the Crimson may have earned the first seed in the league tournament, its number 12 ranking in the latest national poll makes it just the third-best team in the Ivy League in the eyes of the media.
Although different scenarios abound, the only sure way for Harvard to earn itself a spot in the NCAA Tournament will be to win the Ivy League Tournament and thereby capture the league’s automatic qualifier.
While the league as a whole has an outside chance to receive as many as three bids, the scenario remains unlikely, given the surplus of quality teams around the nation vying for a berth in postseason play.
The last time the Ivy League had three teams in the NCAA Tournamentfield was 2009, when Brown, Princeton, and Cornell represented the Ancient Eight.
Given the parity of the league this year, home-field advantage may prove crucial for Harvard as it attempts to capture the conference tournament for the first time in the event’s five-year history.
The Crimson earned the right to host by sharing the regular season league title with Cornell and beating the Bid Red head-to-head, 14-9, in Ithaca earlier this season.
Harvard has been unstoppable at home this season, going 6-0 with an average margin of victory of more than five goals.
But the quality of the teams it hosted does not match the quality of the teams it played on the road. The Crimson’s home opponents have a combined record of 27-52 this season, while its away opponents have a cumulative record of 67-38.
Despite the team’s sub-.500 record on the road this season, Harvard beat both Cornell and Yale and led Penn by two goals late in the fourth quarter before eventually falling in overtime, all away.
At home, the team will look to perform even better in these potential rematches.
“We only have the Yale game and that’s it,” Wojcik said. “We’re just focused on Yale, but it is nice to be playing on our home field.”
The tournament promises to be a shootout, as all four teams rank in the top 25 in scoring offense with more than ten goals per game. Harvard will likely lean heavily on its catalyst, sophomore attackman Devin Dwyer, who recently garnered Ivy League Player of the Week honors.
Dwyer primarily looks to create opportunities for his teammates with feeds from behind the goal, and he leads the Crimson with 30 assists on the season despite missing the team’s first four games due to injury.
Co-captain midfielder Peter Schwartz, as well as sophomore attackman Will Walker, will likely be counted on to lead the goal-scoring efforts for Harvard.
The duo leads the team with 21 and 32 goals, respectively.
The Crimson appears to be peaking at the right time, as it has won four of its last five games while climbing the national rankings and capturing a share of the Ancient Eight title.
If Harvard were to win the Ivy League Tournament, it would guarantee its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006.
“It was great to win an Ivy League championship and we’re all very proud of that,” co-captain defenseman Joe Petrucci said. “But we’re not satisfied. We have much, much larger goals this season and we think our best lacrosse is still out there. So I think the mindset is just laser-like focus on Yale this Friday night.”