The Harvard field hockey team wasn’t supposed to win the Ivy League title last fall. They weren’t supposed to beat Penn or even have a shot against Princeton. Yet, at the conclusion of the season, the Crimson stood alone atop the conference podium with an undefeated Ancient Eight record.
A year later, they’re doubted again.
In this year’s NCAA preseason rankings, Princeton was the highest-ranking Ivy League team at No. 8, while Harvard still broke the top 25 with a spot at No. 20. The rankings set the scene for another pseudo-Ivy League championship matchup between the two conference juggernauts, this time in Cambridge.
But the young Crimson team will have to dispose of the six other conference teams first.
“We also lost eight seniors last year, which was a big loss for our team, as they were an integral part of our success,” co-captain Ellie Cookson said. “However, we have seven new freshmen who are extremely talented and are bringing a lot to the table in different ways.”
Among the most noticeable losses for Harvard is forward Marissa Belleza, who made program history last season when she became the most successful scorer in program history. With 47 career goals, Balleza has the most career goals in program history and sits second in career goals per game.
“I think that the fact that our team is such a young and fresh team gives us the potential for major growth, and after the success of this past week in California," Cookson said. "I think it is obvious that even though the team is young, it will not hinder our ability to connect as a team and play the strongest that we can.”
Balleza was also more than just a goal-scorer—this year’s team will look to continue the culture of success that she brought to the program.
“Losing Marissa and all of our seniors was not just a loss to our team on the field but a loss of some truly amazing women who worked so hard to make Harvard field hockey what it is today,” junior forward Kathleen Young said. “They were instrumental in changing our team culture to be more competitive in the Ivy League and to win the championship.”
Several freshmen are already aiding in filling that gap. In a weekend trip to California, classmates Hannah Pearce and Mimi Tarrant picked up their first career points in a Crimson uniform.
“Our freshmen this year are all extremely talented and are already having a huge impact scoring-wise,” Young said. “Mimi Tarrant has been really fun to play with on the front line and has already scored some spectacular goals.”
Even having lost eight seniors, the team is not lacking talent. The Crimson returns seven starters and remains one of the top defensive teams in the nation.
Among those returning is junior goalkeeper Libby Manela. The Second-Team All-Ivy keeper returns from a 10-2 record and with a 1.42 goals-against average—the 14th best nationally.
Cookson, an All-Ivy Honorable Mention with a formidable passing game, returns as well. The co-captain dominated the assist game last season, racking up 10 to lead both the team and the conference. With 24 in her career, the senior is only three assists away from having the most in Harvard field hockey history.
In addition, midfielder Bente van Vlijmen will return for her second season as the top returning goal-scorer. Last year, the sophomore racked up eight goals, and as a Second Team All-American, was the only freshman in the country to earn a first or second team All-American nod.
Perhaps the most valuable returning member of the team isn’t a player at all, but Coach Tjerk van Herwaarden.
In only his sixth season at the helm of the program, Coach van Herwaarden already has had a successful tenure, having won an outright Ivy League title, made a NCAA tournament appearance, and tied the program record for most season wins.
“Coach van Herwaarden is extremely knowledgeable about the sport of field hockey,” Cookson said. “He knows the tactics and styles that work, and gives us the tools to implement them in our games. He also understands that we are student-athletes at one of the best schools in the world, and gives us the opportunity to explore all that Harvard has to offer, and makes sure we are getting the most out of our education.”
But that was last year. Now having won their first outright conference title since 1990, and on the heels of one of the best seasons in program history, the Crimson is looking for a repeat.
“I think that the success from last year gave us the confidence to know that we are good enough to compete very strongly in the Ivy League, and even nationally,” Cookson said. “However, we are not going to become complacent after last year's success, so we are working on establishing a new standard for Harvard field hockey that is going to be much competitive than before.”