One of the biggest indicators of success for the Harvard men’s lacrosse team this season has been faceoff percentage. In the Crimson’s wins this season, the team has won 55% of its faceoffs, compared to only 40% in its losses.
In Harvard’s Mar. 31 loss to then third-ranked Duke, the Crimson (6-4, 3-0 Ivy) only managed to secure 10 of 31 faceoffs, a major factor in the Blue Devil’s 17-11 victory.
But when Harvard faced No. 2 Cornell on Saturday at Schoellkopf Field, faceoff specialist Gabriel Mendola refused to let history repeat itself. The senior midfielder helped secure 20 of 26 faceoffs and led his team to arguably one of the biggest wins in program history, snapping a nine-game losing streak to the Big Red. With the victory, Harvard retains sole possession of first place in the Ivy League.
Cornell came into the game only allowing opponents to win 44% of faceoff draws, but Mendola put up a 77% conversion rate for the contest.
“Duke really took it to us on faceoffs,” Harvard coach Chris Wojcik ’96 said. “We were disappointed, but this week we really regrouped and practiced hard on the draw to do better this time.”
For Mendola, this was more than just any game. The senior grew up only a mile away from Cornell and was a lifelong Big Red supporter before donning his Crimson uniform.
“All my friends and family were there,” Mendola said. “And it really helped me to play my best lacrosse. It was sort of a dream come true to come home and play like that. My friends and family have seen us lose to them every year that I’ve been at Harvard, but this time, we just said as a team that we knew we could do it and had to prove it.”
In lacrosse, it is often difficult for a single player to truly dictate the flow of the game from a traditional field position. However, if a team is able to dominate the faceoff battle, the entire contest is turned on its head. Winning possession after possession is both invigorating for an offense and grueling for a defense.
The momentum translates rapidly into more goals, and defensive mistakes are mitigated.
Mendola provided that offensive spark for the Crimson, dominating the faceoff battle. The senior also finished the game with 10 individual groundball pickups, eight more than the next-highest individual total for the Crimson and five more than any Big Red player.
“Gabe really stepped up,” Wojcik said. “It means a lot to give our defense a chance to rest and really keep the pressure on our opponents after goals. He really was the biggest difference maker for us.”
Harvard won the game during the second and third quarters, winning those two frames by a combined 9-3 goal margin. During that time, Mendola provided an offensive spark by going 11-14 for the Crimson.
“We have seen what happens when we aren’t able to win faceoffs and don’t get the ball,” said Harvard co-captain and senior midfielder Peter Schwartz. “It is huge for us as an offense to get those extra possessions, and it allows us to get into a better flow and put points on the board.”
On Saturday, the Crimson lost nearly every statistical battle. The team had lower save and shooting percentages, conceded more turnovers, and went only 1-6 on extra-man chances. Discounting the faceoff-related ground ball pickups, the Crimson could have also lost that battle by a wide margin.
But thanks to Mendola’s efforts, those concessions never mattered. While Cornell was more efficient than Harvard with its shots and saves, the Crimson was able to take almost twice as many shots as the Big Red. By dominating possession, Harvard was able to effectively overwhelm the Cornell defense and secure the upset victory.
Mendola was, of course, not alone in his success. There are two components to dominating the faceoff battle: the faceoff specialist himself, but also the wing players who fight to secure the ball after the initial confrontation.
“We had great wingplay on Saturday,” Mendola said. “Whenever I couldn’t get it myself, I could always get it out to Brian Fischer or Keegan Michel or whatever short-stick midfielder was there.”
Mendola did not start the season as Harvard’s primary faceoff midfielder. In the first three games this year, he only took 12 of 69 faceoffs. The Crimson lost the faceoff battle in each of those games. Since then, Mendola has taken 135 of 186 faceoffs, winning 76 of them for a 56% success rate.
“He’s developed a lot of confidence and continued to work really hard throughout the season,” Wojcik said. “We’ve seen him make a lot of progress throughout the year, and it really materialized for us on Saturday.”
—Staff writer Theo Levine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.