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Last spring, on a dark, rainy afternoon in April, Bill Forbush scored in the final minutes of play to give the Crimson stick-men a stunning, come-from-behind win over the Princeton Tigers, 11-10.
Down 10-6 late in the third quarter, Harvard overcame the mud and the favored Princeton laxmen to notch the last five tallies of the contest. As the Crimson players danced for joy in the driving rain after the final gun, no one who was there could help but think, "wait 'til next year, this is just the beginning."
The happy fact was, more than half of Harvard's players were freshmen or sophomores, and anyone who followed Harvard lacrosse had heard the rumors that Crimson coach Bob Scalise had attracted for the next season the finest freshman crop in recent memory.
Despite the disappointing losses that came later that spring to Brown and UMass, the season was a stirring success. Splitting its six Ivy League games and finishing 10-5 overall, the squad had its first winning record and best Ivy finish since 1971, and the most wins in more than a decade.
A small but talented contingent of seniors, led by Kevin McCall, Billy Tennis, and Mike Belmont, graduated in June, but a bevy of lettermen returned this year, and there was always that sterling batch of rookies.
Scalise pointed to a spot in the nation's top ten as the team's 1977 goal, and a shot at the eight-team NCAA tournament looked possible.
That was just two months ago. Saturday, one short year after Harvard edged Princeton to highlight a happy season, the Tigers destroyed the Crimson, 17-7. It was Harvard's third straight loss, coming after the laxmen had misfired against a top-ranked but flat Cornell squad, 12-5, and been upset by hapless Yale, 13-10. That was the Elis' only Ivy triumph in the last two years.
The Crimson, the loser of six of its first ten games, must now beat ninth-ranked UMass Saturday and then get by Williams and Dartmouth simply to salvage a winning record. A loss in Hanover would throw Harvard into the Ivy league cellar alongside Yale.
Now, no one who follows the team can help but ask, "What happened?" As one might expect, there are many answers.
First, it is clear that we all were just a little too optimistic. A number of the players said Sunday that the coaching staff had expected too much, too soon from the young players. "Everybody said we would be good," Jerry Keleher said, "but it wasn't really founded on anything."
And it took a string of 1977 losses before the true value of last year's seniors became fully clear. In Billy Tennis and Kevin McCall, Harvard had lost more than two high-scoring players. The team had lost the stickmen who had been counted on, game in and game out, to take the ball and make something happen when everyone else was just standing around.
On paper, three-year starter Chico MacKenzie, who will finish high on the career scoring list and currently leads the team with 26 goals, figured to fill that role for the Crimson this time around.
But the high-scoring senior is the crease attackman; his job is to move without the ball and to take the best advantage of opportunities when they come his way. He is not in a position to take charge when the game starts to slip away. Several members of the team also mentioned that Chico just isn't the kind of player, personality-wise, to fill that role.
So, Harvard has shown its inexperience all too clearly. Senior stars like Eamon McEneaney at Cornell and Princeton's Dave Tickner and Wicky Sollers have taken complete control of games Harvard lost badly, and old-hands Pete Hollis and Mike Page of Penn took charge of a close game when it really mattered, giving the Quakers an 11-9 win over the Crimson in the final minutes.
So, floundering too often in trying situations, the young team has looked very good against Brown and B.C. and even in the close loss to Penn, but has looked downright terrible on other occasions, especially in the half-hearted effort against Yale.
The team was unanimous in its conviction that this suicidal inconsistency would disappear as the young players gained experience, but you can stick with that line only so long. Many of the current sophomores have been regulars for almost two full seasons now. Tennis sat on the bench as a reserve middie until the middle of his junior season, but by the next spring he was the team's big gun, playing best in the closest games. Are the two situations that much different?
Going beyond the inexperience, there is a simple derth of middies who pack offensive punch, and that is why coach Bob Scalise has had to shuffle his units all spring. He has had to make do without graduated 1976 regulars McCall, Bruce Bruckmann, Gilles Whalen, and Andy Gellis. Mike Faught, exiled to the bench as a reserve attackman in the early going, is the only middie to garner as many as ten points. Forbush, who connected eight times last year, is still without a goal this time around. Bobby Mellen, who got a goal a game in 1976, has been limited to half that this spring, and Gordie Nelson, a high-scoring attackman early this season, has gone dry since he moved to midfield.
So much for the problems of personnel: the talent of the newcomers on the plus side, the talent of the graduated veterans on the minus side. More important is the crucial matter of motivation.
While the Elis were upsetting Harvard in the rain ten days ago, they were visibly the more inspired bunch; such is the stuff that upsets are made of. Inevitably, one wonder if this is the reason behind Harvard's unexpected rash of losses.
Part of the answer is the simple fact that Scalise just isn't a "rah-rah" coach. "He's more low-key than some people," Hank Leopold explains. "He's a quiet motivator, maybe not even a motivator at all to some. But that's the way I like it. I'm a quiet player, but that's the atmosphere that makes it easiest for me to get the job done."
Freshman Mike Ward concurs: "The coaches place a lot of responsibility on the player. They expect you to motivate yourself, and for the most part that's the kind of player we have."
So maybe there is no problem, or maybe you just have to look deeper. The coaching has been marked by too much of playing one man off against another, one team member said Sunday. Different players are promised the same starting spot if they will work a little harder, and starters are pulled out of the lineup with the first mistake, the story goes.
The result is that some men start to play tentatively, and individuals' fears about their tenure as starters keep the team from working together and prevents the older players from helping the newcomers as much as they might.
These "mind-games" were cited by several players who dropped out of the program after Scalise's first season at the helm, and several stickmen who are playing less than they expected this year are clearly feeling the same sort of pressure.
But, contrary to what some people have concluded, I don't get the feeling that the bulk of the team has become dispirited. "It's not an open score. People are in good spirits," one team member said yesterday.
The Crimson defense has had its share of defections in the last two years--Jeff Flanders and Tom Hagerty dropping out of the program and Al Senior taking last year off--but veteran defeseman Greg Jackmauh comes to a positive enough conclusion about things. "Sure, we've all been pulled and wondered when we'd go back in. That's a tough situation," he said yesterday. "The pressure may have bothered people, but, after all, you have to go with the best people you've got."
Ward, one of the highly touted freshmen who has already been switched from a berth on the first midfield to a reserve attack spot in his short Harvard career, concluded that he's "not afraid of being pulled if he doesn't perform well. "Coach Scalise always tells us the only mistake you can ever really make is not hustling."
Of crucial importance is that no one on the team seems to have given up after the heartbreaking streak the squad has just come through. There's an important honor still up for grabs. A win Saturday would break UMass's three-year grip on the New England championship, a title Harvard would collect by taking its last three contests.
Beyond that, all but six of this year's players will be back for next year's battles and ending this spring on a winning note would make it much easier next year to fulfill the promise everyone still sees in this young team.
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