Of the eight at-large bids to the NCAA lacrosse tournament, the first seven went to traditional powerhouses Cornell, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Syracuse, North Carolina, and Virginia. That left one spot remaining, with Hofstra and Harvard vying for the all-important opportunity.
The selection committee chose Harvard.
“There’s always some anxiety as you wait like that,” Crimson coach Chris Wojcik ’96 said. “But you can tell how much these guys love lacrosse by how excited they were to keep playing lacrosse together for another week.”
No. 13 Harvard (10-6, 5-1 Ivy) will play No. 5 Notre Dame (9-5, 2-3 ACC), the automatic qualifier from the Atlantic Coast Conference, on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in South Bend, Ind. The first-round contest can be viewed on ESPNU.
This season marks the first time that the Crimson has advanced to the NCAA Tournament since 2006, when the team lost to Syracuse in the first round.
Since the tournament’s inception in 1971, Harvard has made it just five times, never surviving past the quarterfinals.
Notre Dame comes into the matchup riding a three-game win streak, including impressive victories over second-seeded Syracuse and seventh-seeded Maryland.
But Harvard has also been hot as of late, as the Crimson has won five out of its last seven games, with the two losses both coming to fourth-seeded Penn.
Defense has been critical to Harvard’s success all season. In each of the team’s wins, the Crimson held its opponent to 10 goals or fewer.
Harvard even tends to slow the game down on the offensive end, setting up the attack and creating chances through team offense as opposed to individual efforts.
In its most recent loss, however, the Crimson held Penn to seven goals but only managed to score five. The setback in the Ivy League championship game was the first time all season that Harvard posted a shots-on-goal rate lower than 50 percent, as the 45.9 percent mark was well below the season average of 61.8 percent.
“We play as a team,” said defenseman and co-captain Joe Petrucci. “We are going to be ready to support our guys all over the field.”
Notre Dame, on the other hand, has won its last two games in shootouts, 15-14 over Syracuse and 18-17 over Army.
Much of the reason for the two high-scoring contests can be attributed to the Fighting Irish pushing the ball in transition, creating fast break opportunities for their offense and quick possessions.
“[Notre Dame] is excellent in transition and between the lines,” Wojcik said. “They generate offense that way and ride really hard on the other side, so we need to be very good in transition as well.”
The two styles will clash on Saturday, and the team that proves able to dictate the tempo of the game will likely come out on top.
One of the most important players for Harvard will be sophomore attackman Devin Dwyer. Between April 26 and May 2, Dwyer recorded 11 assists in just two games and was named first team All-Ivy.
But in the loss against Penn, Dwyer notched his lowest point total of the year, scoring only one goal with no assists.
If Harvard finds itself in a shootout with Notre Dame, as the effective quarterback of the offense, Dwyer will need to have a big day.
For the Fighting Irish, the offense revolves around attackmen sophomore Matt Kavanagh and junior Conor Doyle. Together, the duo has collectively notched 95 of Notre Dame’s 252 points this season. Doyle’s brother Jack also plays for the Fighting Irish after having transferred from Harvard this past season.
“[Kavanagh and Doyle] are both great players,” Wojcik said. “We are going to have to play great team defense and limit their ability to get to the goal. We will definitely need strong goaltending as well.”
The Notre Dame offense will face junior goaltender Jake Gambitsky, who has been solid in net recently for Harvard, recording save percentages over 50 percent in each of his last five games. His mark sits at 57 percent over that stretch, and he is 52 percent overall for the season.
One of the most interesting battles to watch will be at the faceoff, where senior Gabriel Mendola and freshman Austin Williams of Harvard will take on senior Liam O’Connor and junior Nick Ossello of Notre Dame.
O’Connor has won an impressive 58.9 percent of his faceoffs over the course of the season. While Mendola has won only 52 percent, the senior was victorious 68.1 percent of the time in conference play.
“We just hope that we can represent Harvard well,” Petrucci said. “This is our first time in the tournament in a long time. We have a lot to prove.”
—Staff writer Theo Levine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.