At halftime Saturday in Ithaca, N.Y., the Harvard men’s lacrosse team exhaled a collective sigh of relief. For the Crimson (5-4, 3-0 Ivy), breaking even after 30 minutes of play against the undefeated second-ranked team in the country, Cornell (9-1, 3-1), was in itself an impressive achievement. The Crimson had struggled against top opponents so far this season, dropping games to North Carolina, Duke, and Albany by a combined 15 goals.
But this time was different.
“I told the team to just take a deep breath,” Harvard coach Chris Wojcik ’96 said. “Coming out of the half, our players not only believed, but they really knew that if we went out and executed, then we could outplay them for thirty minutes.”
Over the course of the third quarter, the Crimson outscored the Big Red, 6-1. Harvard then maintained that lead through the closing whistle, eventually winning, 14-9, to solidify its spot alone atop the Ivy League standings.
“We have a long way to go,” Wojcik said. “But this game helped to put us in a good position going towards the postseason.”
The Crimson struggled in many aspects of the game. The team had a lower save percentage, more turnovers, and a far worse man-up conversion percentage than its opponent.
Behind the game-changing individual performance of Gabriel Mendola, however, Harvard dominated the possession. The senior midfielder secured 20 of 27 faceoffs, ensuring that Harvard could take more shots and control possession throughout the contest.
“Mendola was the most valuable player for us,” Wojcik said. “It’s a team effort, but he was the biggest difference maker in the game.”
Yet even with Mendola’s performance, the match was hardly a lock, as the Crimson did not take a lead until the second half.
The Big Red scored first with a goal from senior midfielder Joe Paoletta two and a half minutes into the game, but Harvard answered quickly as sophomore attackman Ian Ardrey nailed a shot past Cornell freshman goaltender Christian Knight to tie the game.
Over the next five minutes, the Crimson faced its most challenging test of the game. Senior midfielders Mike O’Neil and Connor Entemann, along with Paoletta scored three straight for the Big Red to take a 4-1 lead with six minutes left in the quarter.
“We knew we were in a tough spot,” sophomore attackman Will Walker said. “Against a team like that, if you go down, you really need to work to stop the bleeding quickly.”
Instead of throwing in the towel, Harvard fought back. First, sophomore attackman Deke Burns scored off an assist from classmate and fellow attackman Devin Dwyer. Burns then set up co-captain midfielder Peter Schwartz to reduce the home team’s lead to one going into the second quarter.
Soon after the restart, the Crimson drew a Cornell penalty and drew even with a strike from Burns on another Dwyer assist. The Big Red answered almost immediately, with two rapid goals from senior attackman Dan Lintner and junior midfielder John Hogan, but that would be the last time that Cornell would extend a lead.
Schwartz scored again with 7:25, and then Walker, Harvard’s leading scorer, got on the board with 53 seconds left to tie the game going into the half.
“Our offense has been really firing recently,” Walker said. “We got great ball movement, and it really put us in some great spots.”
Coming out of the break, the Crimson caught fire. Burns scored first off an assist from Walker, giving Harvard its first lead of the game. Two minutes later, senior attackman Carl Zimmerman notched a goal. Hogan answered for Cornell, decreasing the lead down to one, but from there, the Crimson dominated, thanks in large part to Mendola’s repeated faceoff wins.
Senior midfielder Daniel Eipp nailed the net first, off an assist from Zimmerman, followed two minutes later by Walker assisted by Dwyer.
Zimmerman then added another goal thirty seconds later, assisted by Schwartz, and then with only seven seconds left in the quarter, Walker scored again, this time assisted by senior midfielder Pat Fiorvanti. Harvard led the second best team in the nation 12-7, going into the final period.
“We got together in the huddle, and we all knew what we needed to do,” Walker said of the team’s feelings after final break. “The next fifteen minutes were going to be everything we had. We had nothing to lose and we knew that we could do it.”
Only 20 seconds into the fourth period, Walker scored his fourth goal of the game, and 26th of the season, assisted by Burns. Hogan and John Edmonds scored for Cornell, but the Big Red would not score again. Dwyer put one more past Knight to extend the lead to its final score, 14-9, and ensure the Crimson’s command of the Ivy League.
“The difference in the game was our players,” Wojcik said. “We came in really hungry, and we really wanted this game. We were scrappy and the hustle was always there. That really allowed us to control the tone of the game and come out on top.”
—Staff writer Theo Levine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.