Defense Paves Path for Men's Lacrosse

JAHELKA
Robert F Worley

Sophomore defenseman Stephen Jahelka is among the defensive corp that has paved the men’s lacrosse team’s path to the postseason.

Levine La Vida Loca

The Harvard men’s lacrosse team (8-5, 4-1 Ivy) finished both of its last two seasons with a 6-8 record, going 2-4 in conference play. In NCAA lacrosse, the Ivy League is one of the most competitive forums in existence. Traditional powerhouses Cornell and Princeton, coupled with the emergent powers of Yale and Penn, make competing for the one guaranteed bid to the NCAA tournament incredibly challenging for any team in the Ancient Eight. This level of talent also makes it enormously difficult to generate an appealing resume for the 10 at-large bids that are given out.

The Crimson will finish this season having played 14 games. According to the computer-based RPI poll, the team will have played the second, third, fifth, sixth, 12th, 15th, 16th, and 17th-ranked teams. Both the Inside Lacrosse poll and the USILA DI Coaches’ poll show Harvard as having played against six teams out of the top 20.

Despite the hefty competition, the Crimson is currently 8-5 and sits atop the Ivy League standings with a 4-1 record, having already clinched a berth in the conference tournament. Additionally, two of Harvard’s worst losses, to unranked opponents UMASS and Albany, came without sophomore attackman Devin Dwyer, who is without a doubt a very important part of the Crimson offense, currently tied for the second-highest number of points on the roster, despite missing the first four games of the year.

The key to this success has not been the offense, however. In the biggest games of the season, the defense has stepped up and exerted a level of control over the game that has not been seen from a Harvard team in recent years.

Rewind back to the Cornell game, which the Crimson won 14-9 over then second-ranked Big Red.

At the time, Cornell had three players who were seen as possible contenders for the Tewaarton Trophy in junior midfielder Connor Buczek, senior attackman Dan Lintner, and junior attackman Matt Donovan. Each of these players averaged around four points per game coming into the contest, and only Buczek had a single game without a goal, a game in which he made five assists.

Against the Harvard defense, however, everything changed for the dynamic trio. Together, they recorded one goal, zero assists, and conceded six turnovers. The Crimson defense threw the Cornell offense completely off its game and was able to reap the benefits of that effort with the victory. Up until that game, Cornell was undefeated and had scored nearly 15 goals per game. Against the Harvard defense, the Big Red scored fewer than 11 goals for the first time all season, and watched its perfect season slip away.

Fast-forward to last week’s game against then 14th-ranked Princeton. Like Cornell, the Tigers also had top candidates for the Tewaarton award, chief among them senior midfielder Tom Schreiber. Schreiber came into the meeting averaging over four points per game.

The Crimson defense held the midfielder to zero points on its way to a 9-8 victory that both put Harvard into the Ivy League tournament, and knocked Princeton out of it. This was also the fewest points that the Tigers had scored all season.

So where does the credit for this defensive dominance go?

The answer to that question is complicated. This week, junior long-stick midfielder Brian Fischer earned the Ivy League co-player of the week honor for his work guarding Schreiber, and that was certainly well-deserved. However, the real answer lies in the cohesiveness of the entire Crimson defense.

Senior defenseman and co-captain Joe Petrucci has taken a group consisting of Fischer and a series of sophomore defensemen and turned it into one of the more dominant defensive units in the country. Sophomores Walker Kirby, Stephen Jahelka and Bobby Duvnjak have excelled under Petrucci’s leadership, and junior goaltender Jake Gambitsky has been very hot of late.

Together, these players have built up a defense that has earned a high degree of respect from programs across the country, and has put the team into a position from which it needs only two wins to reach the NCAA tournament.

And perhaps the most remarkable component of this transformative team is its youth. Of the team’s players with double-digit point tallies so far this season, seven of ten will be returning next year. All seven are sophomores. Defensively, many players will be returning as well.

This year, the Crimson shirked off its position as the fifth-best team in the Ivy League that it had held for some time, and seized the top conference spot during the regular season. While the team may or may not win the conference tournament this year, based on its apparent current trajectory, it will likely continue to be relevant on the national scale for some time to come.

The future looks bright for Harvard men’s lacrosse.

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

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