Twenty-three years is a long time.
For every year since 1994, the Harvard field hockey team had fallen to Princeton. More dauntingly, the Tigers had taken the Ivy League title in 21 of those seasons.
In the fall of 2016, the Crimson did not overlook the historic importance of the Princeton matchup. Most of the players had not even been alive the last time that Harvard had claimed a victory in the series.
Indeed, 2004 marked the last time that the Crimson had tasted an Ivy League championship. Saying history was not on Harvard’s side entering the Oct. 22 contest was akin to the Apollo 13 crew saying, “Houston, we’ve had a problem” after an oxygen tank exploded. A massive understatement.
But something about 2017 felt different.
The team looked sharper and more confident as the wins started piling up. Anticipation and excitement built up alongside each record-breaking Harvard victory over the course of the semester.
Still, the Princeton showdown was the one that the squad had circled on its calendar. With a six-game winning streak and an unblemished Ivy League record through four contests, the Crimson arrived at Princeton looking far more like equals than the David to the Tigers’ Goliath. Perhaps the most important obstacle that stood in Harvard’s way for an Ivy League Championship was this matchup with the defending league champions.
“It’s something that we initially didn’t think was possible,” senior forward Clare McClintock said. “But we got to the game and really felt like we could do it. After years and years where we felt like we could’ve come close, it was pretty exciting to finally steal [the Ivy League title] from them.”
Despite suffering some early season losses, Harvard was riding high from an extended winning streak and outstanding individual performances from some of its top players. Sophomore goalkeeper Libby Manela had been practically airtight the entire season, allowing only three opposing shots to squeeze past her to date.
Meanwhile, senior forward Marissa Balleza had just become the new program record-holder for career goals and points with 44 and 103, respectively. Balleza also entered the game against the Tigers as the Ivy League Player of the Week, a title that she coincidentally shared with Princeton senior midfielder/striker Cat Caro.
“Everything came together at the right time,” Harvard coach Tjerk van Herwaarden said. “All those things we had worked on for the past year came together for the Princeton game. The big thing with that game is that everyone in the program has worked so hard for four, five years, and it all led up to this point. It all came down in the right moment in the right time.”
With several individual accomplishments already in hand, the Crimson was ready to take the next step toward its ultimate goal. Balleza took little time to add another tally to her record, netting a goal in the 13th minute. With the Crimson up 1-0, sophomore forward Kathleen Young continued to propel Harvard by finding the backboard in the 27th minute. Young collected a loose rebound from junior midfielder Ellie Cookson’s scoring attempt and knocked it past the Tigers’ Grace Baylis for her second goal of the season.
“We took a very well-deserved 2-0 lead against Princeton,” van Herwaarden said. “I think this is because everyone entered the Princeton game with the right expectations and right attitude. We knew that, frankly, this game was going to determine the Ivy League season.”
Caro and the Tigers were not going down without a fight. The Bridgewater, N.J., native helped even out the scoreboard during the second half with an assist in the 44th minute and a goal 19 minutes later. In the game’s final seven minutes, neither team was able to find holes in the opposing defense, and the contest rolled to overtime.
Harvard was no stranger to an extra period. Having opened its season with three overtime games in a row, the Crimson knew what it took to break a deadlock and bring home a victory.
“The team does a great job of really pulling themselves together for the last few moments,” McClintock said. “Everyone has a really focused mentality on overtimes and getting those games done.”
It took Harvard only 59 seconds of overtime to seal the deal. Receiving a pass on the right of the Princeton goal, Young ran the ball down the end line before slotting her shot in near the post to end the game with a Crimson victory over Princeton for the first time in 22 long years.
The victory against the Tigers was the crown jewel in a historically successful season for Harvard field hockey. The Crimson beat Penn for the first time in four years and sealed the longest winning streak in program history.
The breakthrough came after the team went just 30-37 since 2012, van Herwaarden’s first in Cambridge. As freshmen, the current seniors were 63rd in the RPI rankings. Three years later, the group finished its senior campaign ranked 14th.
“I think that really shows what we have been able to change this past season and over the last five years,” van Herwaarden said. “A different culture has been established—it’s a culture where we want to put ourselves in the best position possible to compete for Ivy League Championships.”
—Staff writer Amanda X. Fang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.