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Last year, no one really expected much from the Harvard men's lacrosse team during preseason. But then the Crimson had its greatest season ever, rising to the upper echelons of the NCAA polls and peaking as high as number three.
Harvard's unprecedented rise to prominence--including its first-ever win in an NCAA tournament game--ended in the second round of the national tourney, when North Carolina prevailed, 18-3, in Chapel Hill, NC.
This year, the loss of the seniors that engineered last year's dream season--including All-America attacker Dave Kramer, All-America defenders Chris Bentley and Mike Murphy and Co-Captain midfielders Perry Dodge and Mark Donovan--have again caused lax pollsters to expect little out of the Harvard squad. The Crimson was ranked 15th in this season's preseason poll, a fairly low ranking in the small world of Division I lacrosse.
And after the Crimson's shocking 11-8 loss to C.W. Post in its season opener on Saturday at Ohiri Field, there is reason to believe that this year, the pollsters may be right.
In the Post game, many of the Crimson's problems came to the fore. The young defense, which returns only one regular starter (junior Dennis Murphy), failed to contain the Pioneers' fast break in the early going, as five goals came from seven to ten yards in front of the Crimson cage.
The defense was able to clamp down during the rest of the game, forcing Post to work the ball more around the offensive zone. But Post's early lead forced Harvard to play catchup, and offensively, Harvard struggled even more.
The Crimson worked the ball around the offensive zone, but had trouble charging the Post cage. More importantly, Post maintained constant pressure on the ball, forcing poor passing and easy turnovers.
It is no surprise that the Harvard offense has had a few problems after Kramer's graduation. Last year, Kramer, who was known for his long-range accuracy, powered the Crimson offense, netting over 50 goals. The All-America was especially strong in the clutch, leading come-from-behind victories in games against Army, Penn, C.W. Post and Yale.
"We have to fill in for Kramer," Co-Captain Tim Reilly said. "We have to find a 50-goal scorer...whether it's one of us, or all of us."
Mick Cavouti would be the obvious candidate to fill the scoring void. Three years ago, Cavouti was one of the nation's top recruits. Last year, the Mather House resident tallied 48 points.
Harvard will also look to juniors Don Rogers, Paul Faust and aggressive freshman attacker Mike Porter to provide a new offensive spark, and bruising sophomore midfielder Chad Prusmack to win face-offs and recover ground balls.
Harvard Coach Scott Anderson has implemented a new "wide-2" offense this year--a scheme which spreads players across the entire field in a "T" pattern which is designed to free up the Crimson's game. Anderson hopes that it will spread out the Harvard attack and, ultimately, create more one-on-one opportunities.
But the "wide-2" also relies on each player knowing where the other players are moving on the field, and anticipating their cuts. It relies on team chemistry. And, there again, the Crimson is faced with another tough question.
"We've really been working a lot with the first team to get the chemistry that's needed," Cavouti said. "We need to get used to the movement."
The Crimson's main defensive strength is in the net. Junior netminder Chris Miller has started between the twines for the past two seasons, and was a force last year. Michael Tauckus, who was especially strong in the Crimson's win over Massachussetts last year, and classmate Mike Kramer will start with Murphy at defense.
Even if it can regain the strength it displayed last year, the Crimson still faces a formidable schedule. In the last few years, the Ivy League has emerged as one of the most powerful forces in Division I Lacrosse. Last year, Brown, Yale, Princeton, and Harvard were all ranked in the top 10.
And last year, the Crimson was able to secure dramatic wins over its Ivy opponents to win a share of the Ivy League title. Cornell, Princeton, Penn and lowly Dartmouth all fell in succession. But the highlight of the Crimson's season came in New Haven, as Harvard upset the then-NCAA second seed and eventual NCAA tournament semifinalist Yale in overtime, 7-6, securing itself a spot among the nation's elite.
This year, Brown and Princeton should be the powerhouses of the Ivy League. Despite losing its goalie, traditionally strong Brown promises to be an even tougher team then it was last year, when it handed the Crimson its only Ivy loss, a 21-16 decision under the lights in Providence, R.I. Led by All-America junior Andy Towers, the Bruins also boast prime-time attackers Darren Lowe and Jay McMahon, who together pack one of the nation's strongest offensive punches.
Coming off of its first-round NCAA tournament victory over Johns Hopkins last year, the Princeton Tigers will also be vying for the nation's top spots. Even though they were the youngest team in the Ivies, the Tigers spent all of last season in the top 10.
Now with the extra experience of the NCAA tournament behind them and the strength of attacker Justin Tortellani and Ivy League Rookie of the Year Torr Marro, the Tigers are undoubtedly a team on the rise. Princeton opened this year's action with a 15-10 victory over a declining Hopkins team and an 18-1 blowout of Lafayette.
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