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For the Harvard men's water polo team, the plane ride home from the Air Force Academy Invitational in Colorado was filled with mixed emotions--fatigue, frustration, optimism. Losses to such Top 10 teams as UC Santa Barbara and Air Force were bittersweet in that the Crimson was able to walk away with invaluable experience.
Improvement was apparent since with each game the Crimson (3-5) closed in on its competition. Harvard lost to UC Davis, 21-9, and UC Santa Barbara 20-11, but then bounced back with closer defeats at the hands of Air Force, 11-4, and finally Redlands, 9-7.
The most positive point of the tournament came against the No. 9 team in the country, UC Santa Barbara. After falling behind 6-1 in the first quarter, the team battled back to tighten the score at 8-6. It wasn't until the fourth quarter when the experience of the nationally-ranked team showed through, as UC Santa Barbara outscored Harvard 12-5 in the final stretch.
Harvard coach Don Benson '88 was encouraged by his team's performance, especially considering that none of the players on the current roster had ever played in this invitational. Benson, however, was initially concerned when his team came out in the first game flat and intimidated by the competition.
"On the offensive end we were being forced out of taking the offense because they closed our passing lanes," Benson said.
Throughout the tournament Benson tried different defensive options. Considering that the west coast competition is superior to that in the east, Benson felt that the tournament was a perfect opportunity to experiment.
Despite these changing defensive options and the subsequent high scores, sophomore goalkeeper Ed Chen was impressive. Chen saved almost all shots when the teams were at even strength, with most of the goals coming only when Harvard was outnumbered.
One of the low points, however, came in the last game against what Benson believed was a beatable opponent, Redlands. A combination of frustration and the effects of the Colorado altitude on the players created a dismal performance.
"The team as a whole was trying too hard to win the game," freshman Michael Zimmerman said. "If we had just relaxed and thought about what we were doing we would have won."
Despite that disappointing loss, newcomer Zimmerman was one of the most promising aspects with his standout play. In only his third collegiate game, Zimmerman recorded a team-high five goals against UC Davis and ended the tournament with 11 goals. Although his play appeared veteran-like, the freshman admitted to feeling nervous.
"I wasn't intimidated, but I was a little nervous considering it was my first really big college game and that we were playing such high-ranked competition," Zimmerman said.
Now as the team prepares for MIT on Wednesday, the events of the Air Force Invitational remain fresh on Harvard's mind. The record in the tournament pales in significance to the immense experience which the squad gained.
The Crimson played against some of the best competition in the country and walked away with focus and renewed intensity.
"Most of us are excited to try out the new things we learned and to see how we do against east coast teams now after facing the western water polo powers," Chen said.
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