Upset Game of the Year: Men's Lacrosse vs. Cornell

At halftime against Cornell, the Harvard men’s lacrosse team was tied, 6-6, with the then-No. 2 Big Red.

But this was not just halftime for the game. This was the halftime for the season.

To that point, the Crimson had gone 6-4, struggled against talented opponents, and had losses to UNC, Duke, UMass, and Albany, with hardly any impressive victories.

But the Harvard squad that emerged from the locker room break was not the team that went into it.

“We knew that if we played our best, we were going to win,” Harvard coach Chris Wojcik ’96 said. “I vividly remember seeing a genuine sense of confidence in our players’ eyes.”

The Crimson outscored Cornell, 6-1, in the third quarter, ultimately clinching the victory and taking a step in a new direction while handing the Big Red its first loss of the season. From that point, Harvard won four of its next five games, beating ranked conference opponents Princeton and Yale.

Harvard finished with the best record in the Ivy League, and ultimately came  in second in the Ancient Eight tournament just one year after finishing 6-8 overall and 2-4 in the conference.

“The Cornell game was the turning point,” Wojcik said. “It was a breakthrough for us for the rest of the season.”

And perhaps even more importantly, largely thanks to the victory against the Big Red, the Crimson was able to put together a strong enough résumé to receive one of eight at-large bids to the NCAA tournament, in which it eventually succumbed to Notre Dame in the first round on May 10.

This was the first time that Harvard had defeated Cornell since 1999, breaking the 16-game streak of dominance by the Big Red.

Last year when the teams played in Harvard Stadium, the Big Red won, 14-12, coming back from a three-goal deficit to finish the game on a 5-0 run. This year, playing in Ithaca, the expectations for the Crimson were low.

“We’ve come close to beating Cornell before,” co-captain defenseman Joe Petrucci said. “But since I’ve been here, even though the score has ended up close, we never really were ready. They always had so much more confidence and would approach the game as if they had already won it.”

This time, however, things were different. In the end, Harvard did not just win the game, but won handily, and made a strong case for its emergence as a potential national power.

“Cornell has been the standard for the Ivy League over the last 10 years,” Wojcik said. “To beat them on their home field was a validation for our players that we can legitimately beat anyone.”

The Big Red jumped out to an early lead in the contest, outscoring the Crimson, 4-1, but Harvard came back to tie it with 13 minutes left in the second quarter.

Cornell then quickly went up by two goals, but once again the Crimson answered, led by co-captain Peter Schwartz. The midfielder forced a turnover in his own end of the field, scooped up the ground ball, ran the length of the field, and scored, invigorating his teammates and cutting the lead down to one before sophomore attackman Will Walker tied the score going into halftime.

Harvard had been outperformed by its opponent in several aspects of the game up to that point. The Big Red had controlled most of the ground balls, had committed fewer turnovers, and—despite giving up several man-up opportunities—had prevented the Crimson from capitalizing on these chances.

The one aspect of the game in which Harvard had been better than Cornell was in faceoffs, which was the primary reason that the game was still close. Senior midfielder Gabe Mendola won 10 of the 13 faceoffs in the first half.

“We looked at each other at halftime and knew that we were sick of being the ‘little brother’ to them for so long,” Petrucci said. “We wanted to change that attitude, and we did.”

In the second half, the Crimson began securing more ground balls and limiting its turnovers, and Mendola continued to dominate in faceoffs, finishing 20-of-26 and scooping up 10 ground balls on the day.

As a result of this, Harvard dominated the possession game, which led it to outshoot the Big Red, 38-21.

Walker finished with four goals and one assist, while sophomore attackman Devin Dwyer had three assists and one goal.

“Lacrosse is a game of runs and momentum,” Wojcik said. “We came out of the locker room at halftime and began playing the best lacrosse we had played up to that point. The confidence continues to build after a game like that, and it really made a difference for our season.”

—Staff writer Theo Levine can be reached at tlevine@college.harvard.edu.

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