In one of Harvard’s toughest losses last season, the then-No. 2 Cornell men’s lacrosse squad rallied from a 12-9 deficit, making up three goals in the final three and a half minutes to stun the Crimson at Harvard Stadium.
Just one year later, the teams will face off in Ithaca with major Ivy League implications on the line. Harvard (5-4, 2-0 Ivy) and the Big Red (9-0, 3-0) enter the match as the two remaining undefeated teams in Ivy League play, with the winner of the match taking control of the league halfway through the six-game conference race.
“We were up on them last year and blew a big lead in the fourth quarter,” said senior defenseman and co-captain Joe Petrucci. “We know we can play with these guys and compete. It will be a dogfight; we know we have the capability to win but this time we have to play the full 60 minutes.”
Cornell enters the match as the only undefeated team in the nation. A year after losing in the national semifinals to eventual champion Duke, Cornell is on a nine-game winning streak, making it one of the most dangerous teams that the Crimson will face this season.
“They’re a very good team,” Harvard coach Peter Wojcik said. “They’re a good faceoff team, they have a very strong, effective offense. They’re consistently good at [scoring] goals and they have the ability to stop opposing teams as well. They’re undefeated for a reason.”
The Big Red, led by interim coach Matt Kerwick, has established a prolific offensive attack with an average of 14.89 goals and 37.6 ground balls per game, good for second in the nation in both categories. The Cornell attack is led by senior attackman Dan Lintner, whose 32 goals and 3.56 goals per game rank third in the country.
In addition, the Big Red has four other players who have registered over 20 points on the season. Junior attackman Matt Donovan and Connor Buczek come in as the point leaders for Cornell with both players scoring over 20 goals while contributing 10 or more assists. Defensively, the Big Red ranks 10th in the nation in terms of scoring defense, holding opponents to 8.56 goals per game throughout the season.
The Crimson defense will have a tall task ahead of them against the Cornell attack, but will be aided by the return of Petrucci. The co-captain was out for four games after sustaining a concussion versus Brown and will provide a much needed boost in the back third. Petrucci’s presence will help junior goalkeeper Jake Gambitsky, who leads Harvard with 10.67 saves per game and ranks just outside of the top 20 goalkeepers in the nation in that category.
Maintaining a strong midfield game will also be key for the Crimson. Though much of it does not show up on the stat sheet, Petrucci said that keeping a strong control near the middle of the game with timely hits, transition passes and a general aggressiveness is important for a successful Harvard attack.
“It’s important to have midfielders that can perform the whole game,” Petrucci said. “We have three defensive midfielders that can run with anybody and that’s going to be a big part of the game.”
Offensively, the Crimson hope to break the stalwart Big Red defense with a balanced attack. Sophomore attackman Will Walker leads the team with 22 goals on the season and comes in on a hot streak, having scored three or more goals in four of his past five games.
Senior midfielder and co-captain Peter Schwartz has been another offensive spark for Harvard, with 25 points off of 13 assists and 12 goals. Sophomore attackman Devin Dwyer, meanwhile, leads the team with 17 assists on the season to go along with five goals. Dwyer has a total of 22 points on just five games after missing the first four due to a hand injury.
This is the fifth game of the season in which Harvard faces off versus ranked opposition after facing then-No. 14 UMass, No. 17 Albany, No. 6 North Carolina and No. 3 Duke. This game carries even more importance due to the implications it has in the Ivy League. Since the Ancient Eight plays a short schedule, accoridng to Wojcik, each game carries much more importance.
“It’s a very important game,” Wojcik said. “Since we’re the two undefeated teams in the league it’s naturally a pivotal game. There’s only six Ivy League games but this is the biggest game of the year especially because it’s our next one.”
Though the team has struggled to nab a victory versus ranked teams, losing all four contests, Petrucci said the experience gained from those games has proven to be invaluable and the team does not plan on changing their philosophy based on the ranking of their opponent.“
Regardless of who we play we expect to come out with a win,” Petrucci said. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re a top-five team or unranked because we play all teams the same way. [But] playing all these [ranked] teams definitely gives us more confidence going into conference play.”