Crucial Weekend Ahead for Crimson

The Book of Samuels

While Kentucky’s victory over Kansas Monday night in the NCAA tournament signaled the official conclusion of the winter sports season, spring athletics have been rolling for over a month now. The story lines are coming into ever clearer view, the trajectories of the teams now decipherable and somewhat predictable. Yes, we’re long past the stage that so often characterizes the start of a season, when teams are infected by that bug called unbridled optimism.

You know that phase; it’s not confined to the field or the diamond or the court. But boy, on those playing surfaces, the disease does perhaps its most deadly work. All of a sudden, every player is an all-star. Every team is a championship-caliber squad.

Of course, sometimes those preseason hopes are vindicated. But other times, they’re more off-target than Carl Lewis’ rendition of the National Anthem.

And Harvard teams are no exception to that rule. In an interview before the 2011 season, Harvard baseball coach Joe Walsh proclaimed, "I’m not going to give you a ‘we’re cautiously optimistic’ or anything. We’re good. We’re good right now." But the team wasn’t good then or at all in 2011, stumbling to a lowly 9-36 mark and a last-place finish in the Red Rolfe Division.

This year, for certain teams, expectations were equally high. Ranked No. 14/15 before the start of the season, the men’s lacrosse team had what some called the best recruiting class in Ivy League men’s lacrosse history. For others, like baseball, after last year’s debacle, expectations were a bit more tempered.

Over the past month and change, these expectations have squared off against optimism’s antidote—reality—thereby morphing the predictions of the season.

For the spring teams, these outcomes are still far foregone conclusions. But for many, this weekend is a crossroads. It’s not do-or-die yet, not by a long shot, but victories would be critical, much-needed momentum boosts that could carry the teams towards fulfilling those lofty preseason ambitions.

Take baseball. The team’s ugly 4-19 record doesn’t convey the whole story. Eleven of the Crimson’s 19 losses have been by two runs or fewer, and seven of the defeats came against top-25 teams. Most importantly, the team’s first 22 games came away from O’Donnell Field. In game No. 23, the home opener, Harvard topped ACC opponent and crosstown rival Boston College, 5-3.

With this victory in hand, the Crimson, which has a 1-3 conference record, has a chance to make a move this weekend in back-to-back doubleheaders at home against Ivy League foes Columbia and Penn, respectively. Four wins, and Harvard could quite possibly be sitting atop the Red Rolfe Division. The Crimson, somehow, still has a shot at the division crown this year, if for no other reason that the league is horrendous. Dartmouth has the best overall record at 5-13, followed by Yale at 6-18-1.

But four losses, which would give Harvard a 1-7 league mark with 40 percent of Ancient Eight play in the books, and the Crimson would likely be in a Soldiers-Field sized hole.

This isn’t just a critical weekend for baseball, though. Men’s lacrosse, after falling out of the national rankings, travels to Ithaca, N.Y. to square off against a No. 5 Cornell team that picked Harvard apart last year in the Ivy League Tournament Championship, 15-6. A win on Saturday, and Harvard grabs back some of that lost national prestige, not to mention securing a firmer hold on first place in the division. A loss, and Harvard’s largely back to where it was last year: second fiddle to the Big Red.

And there are more. Like women’s lacrosse, which hosts Brown on Saturday and will either move to 2-2 or 1-3 in conference play. In a seven-game league slate, that’s a sizable one-game flip. Or men’s volleyball, which will try to secure an enormous boost going into the conference tournament this weekend with a victory over league juggernaut Penn State. And men’s tennis, which, riding a 12-game winning streak and a national ranking, now enters league play. A top-25 ranking is nice, but what does it mean without an Ivy title?

For these spring teams, the end of the season is fast approaching. The chips are down. It won’t be long before we know if baseball was dealt the 7-2 off suit like last year and if men’s lacrosse got the ace-king suited. It won’t be long before we know who’s got the killer hand and who’s got, well, nothing.

This weekend will be a good indication of exactly what’s in the cards.

—Staff writer Robert S. Samuels can be reached at robertsamuels@college.harvard.edu.

—Follow him on Twitter @bobbysamuels.

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