The scoreboard read 29-24.
When the final whistle blew after 80 minutes of play, the Crimson gathered off the field. It was a disappointing defeat, having given up a 19-0 halftime lead to fall to Indiana University in the consolation match of the USA Rugby Collegiate Division I National Championship.
But even a loss in the final game of the season could not diminish the success that the Harvard rugby squad had achieved in its inaugural season as a varsity team.
“I am really proud of the progress the team made this season, both in the fall and the spring,” co-captain Xanni Brown said. “I think the progress we made in the fall, we very much built on in the spring. I was very proud of how the team played. How we showed up at nationals, I think, is a huge testament to how much work the team put in this year.”
It was a historic season for the Crimson (7-6), as the squad captured its first-ever Ivy League Championship to cap off its fall schedule in November. A 10-5 loss to Dartmouth was the only major blemish in the first half of Harvard’s season, but the Crimson stormed back a month later with a 29-0 rout of the Big Green to take the Ancient Eight title.
The success of the fall set the stage for a strong spring campaign. Unfortunately for Harvard, a slew of season-ending injuries to key components of its starting lineup posed a challenge for the up-and-coming team. In the second half of the season, the injury-hampered squad matched up with some of the toughest competition it faced all season, including a road trip to No. 1 Penn State.
“We lost quite a few starting players,” said co-captain Brandy Machado, who missed much of the spring slate with a concussion. “The teams we were playing were very hard, [but] we didn’t get smashed, and that was with a lot of new players on the field. That’s a really good sign for the future of the program. I am really excited to see where they take the team after [the seniors] are gone.”
The Crimson—fielding some fresh faces in the lineup—ended its inaugural season with three straight losses to top-tier talent. Harvard held its own in a 50-12 loss to the Nittany Lions, and followed up the defeat with a pair of close losses to UNC and Indiana at the national championships in Bowling Green, Ohio.
“There’s a huge difference from August—anyone on the team would attest to that,” co-captain Ali Haber said. “We have been working really hard all year. We better understand how a varsity Harvard team works and what it’s like to try to play on the national level.”
In its first varsity season, the Crimson had to navigate the hurdles in switching from a club program to a full-fledged varsity squad. The transition meant that the team had full access to varsity ammenities—a locker room, a full weight room, and a training staff. Being varsity meant the squad no longer had to scrounge up money for cramped hotel rooms at away tournaments.
But the switch to varsity came with an increasingly demanding practice and travel schedule, which required each player to step up their commitment to the team.
“It was really good for us to see how people managed the commitment,” Haber said. “For a lot of people, it strengthened their commitment to rugby. Some people left, and we knew that would happen, but for a lot of people, it became a choice to really commit to this, and I think that is really good for the future of the program.”
Building on the foundation left from the Radcliffe rugby club team, and under the tutelage of coach Sue Parker, the Crimson rose up the rugby ranks with its strong fall season, carrying a No. 11 national ranking into its spring slate.
“We have set our standards now, and what we know as success and what we will accept as competitive excellence,” Brown said. “The team next year is going to be much more competitive than it was this year, and it’s been exciting seeing a program built up like that.”
Parker, who previously coached perennial rugby powerhouse Navy along with the U.S. women’s rugby national team, brought a wealth of coaching experience at the national and international level to the Crimson. While Parker has certainly provided her guidance from the sidelines, the players themslves have begun to increasingly take leadership roles on the field for Harvard.
“One of the things [the coaches] stressed during the spring season was smart decision-making based on what was going on during the game, and having players on the field be leaders making the decisions,” Machado said.
While the early exit from nationals was a somewhat disappointing end to an otherwise breakout season for Harvard, the Crimson has much to look forward to when the team reconvenes in August for its second time around the block.
While all of Harvard’s current players walked on to the squad, the Crimson will welcome the addition of experienced rugby recruits to its roster for next year’s campaign. The team hopes this will soften the blow of losing nine seniors, many of whom have been significant contributors to the team’s success for the past four years.
“The season we had this year—not so much the record, but the way people worked and the attitude that people have approached it with—has set a really solid foundation for a varsity rugby program that will continue to be competitive and dominant many years in the future,” Brown said.
—Staff writer Brenna R. Nelsen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CrimsonBRN.