It may only be the fourth game of the young season, but the members of the Harvard women's lacrosse team all seem to agree that this afternoon's 1 p.m. matchup with New Hampshire is big.
The Wildcats (2-1 overall, 1-1 Ivy) make the trip from Durham, N.H. to Ohiri Field with the hopes of establishing themselves as the top team in the region, but the defending national champion Crimson (2-1, 2-0) will be fighting for the same bragging rights.
New Hampshire opened its season with a 9-3 victory over Villanova but was then stopped by Yale, 8-7 Last Week, the Wildcats got back on the winning track with a 9-4 win over Dartmouth and today's contest promises to be very much like past clashes between these two squads: physical and close. Last year, Harvard defeated New Hampshire, 8-6, in Durham, N.H.
"[New Hampshire] was dealt a blow by Yale, but they're a very experienced team and loaded with seniors," Harvard Coach Carole Kleinfelder said. "I think they know they have to do well against us."
The New Hampshire game may prove to be one of Harvard's toughest and most important outings of the season, but confidence abounds on the Crimson squad.
"There is no question we can play with them," goalie Sarah Leary said. "We'll win. We'll find a way."
This season the Wildcats have been led by Liz Brickley. The senior midfielder has tallied six goals in New Hampshire's three games. Brickley's linemate and classmate Alita Haytayan has added five goals and one assist, and sixth-year midfielder Anna Hill rounds out a tough Wildcats' middle line.
"[Brickley's] their catalyst," Kleinfelder said. "She has a lot of speed. Her stick handling may not be as good as some of her teammates, but she is the athlete out there."
In net, junior Christa Hanson has recorded 12 saves on the season.
It is difficult to say what tomorrow's 1 p.m. matchup with Rutgers will bring. Rutgers came very close to dropping at the end of last season. Harvard and the other teams at the national championships in Princeton, N.J. last year wore two ribbons on their jerseys in protest of Rutgers's and Massachusetts's intentions to do away with their programs.
While Massachusetts, a past Harvard opponent, did eventually drop women's lacrosse, Rutgers, after students and alumni filed a lawsuit against the university, decided to maintain its program.
Rutgers has hired a new coach, Denise Wescott, who played for Maryland and was involved with the women's lacrosse program at Penn State. But the team has done no recruiting over the past year and is in a rebuilding stage.
"They're somewhat of a decimated team," Kleinfelder said. "I hope it's not a one-sided game. That's not fun for any of the players."
So far this season, Harvard's offense has been all Liz Berkery. The sophomore, who tallied 17 goals all of last season, has already scored 10 times in only three contests.
Her four goal effort in Harvard's 11-6 season-opening victory over Pennsylvania earned her Ivy League Player of the Week honors, and she has followed up that performance with two consecutive hat tricks in a 6-5 overtime loss to Maryland and a 6-4 win over Princeton.
Elizabeth Hansen and Francie Walton have each scored three goals and Sarah Leary (5.13 goals against average, 38 saves) has done a strong job guarding the twines, but Berkery has clearly led the way. The sophomore attacker knows that the Crimson is not a one-woman team, however.
"It's easy to score goals early in the season when the defenses aren't together yet," Berkery said. "I've had the hot hand for now, but I'm sure that will change."
The Crimson certainly is hoping it won't.