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Nothing more accurately describes the mood at Jordan Field on Saturday after Harvard's 3-2 overtime loss to Princeton than disbelief.
After Melanie Meerschwam stuck a loose rebound past tri-captain Anya Cowan into the back of the Harvard cage to end the game, it seemed totally improbable that a game in which Harvard had never trailed and looked certain to win could end so abruptly and so plainly.
Abruptly, because Cowan had just made a full-extension save off a booming penalty corner shot, and plainly, because Princeton had tied the game with 6:11 in regulation on basically the same play.
Cowan had stopped the initial shot on a corner with a glove save to her right, but the Tigers' Ilvy Friebe corralled it and chipped it above the sprawling keeper into the top of the cage.
Leading Princeton, the Ivy champions for the past five years, 2-1 on the strength of two goals from freshman sharpshooter Kalen Ingram, the Crimson (9-5, 3-2 Ivy) was in position to hand the Tigers only their second Ivy loss in their last 37 league games.
But Harvard allowed two goals, both on rebounds off penalty corners, and left Princeton (7-5, 4-1) alive in the Ivy race, while the Crimson will need a minor miracle to catch first-place Brown (11-2, 5-0).
The Tigers had lost four straight games, all to Top 20 teams, and were reeling. A loss to Harvard would have all but put them out of title contention. But Princeton had something extra going for it.
Often, veteran teams with extensive playoff experience win games they aren't supposed to win, and respond with wins when they're most needed.
Nobody on the Princeton roster has ever played on a collegiate field hockey team that didn't make the NCAA Final Four. The Tigers have won five straight Ivy League titles and have played in the national championship game in 1996 and 1998.
Nobody on the Harvard roster has ever been to the NCAA Tournament.
For almost 65 minutes, this game was exhilarating. Ingram, who continued to stake her claim as the heir to Judy Collins '99 and tri-captain Dominique Kalil as the top Harvard striker, flashed her skills all afternoon.
Ingram, who is second on the team in scoring with six goals and six assists, converted a pair of pretty goals in the first half, both off heads-up feeds from junior striker Kate Nagle.
Just 1:25 into the game, Nagle beat a defender in the midfield and pushed the ball ahead for Ingram, who collected it and, with a Princeton defender piggybacking her, protected it to her right and beat keeper Kelly Baril to the corner of the cage.
Later in the first, Ingram took Nagle's feed from the corner and shoved it in to give Harvard a 2-1 lead.
Cowan, who made seven saves, and the Crimson backfield made that lead stand up behind nice efforts from tri-captain Katie Schoolwerth and sophomore Sarah Luskin, who stopped a sure goal on the goal line with her stick in the second half.
But it was the Crimson's inability to clear out effectively after penalty corners that was deadly. Friebe and Meerschwam both pounced on loose balls and made Harvard pay--essentially negating the advantage that Cowan's stellar goalkeeping always gives the Crimson. It was a moment of pure deja vu (ACCENTS) when Meerschwam hit her game-winner, and it contributed to the disbelief that the Crimson would get burned twice.
No less a sage than Roger Kahn says that a sportswriter's greatest enemy is believing that he can predict the future.
Kahn, a native Brooklynite who covered the Dodgers for the New York Herald-Tribune throughout the 1950s, always tried to resist the temptation to make mental assumptions about how a given game would turn out.
I've always tried to put Kahn's credo into practice. But I'm compelled to admit that Saturday I was sure Harvard was going to make good on its best chance for an Ivy title in years.
When Ingram gracefully carried the ball into the circle and lured Baril into no-man's-land before burning her, and when Luskin laid her stick parallel to the ground and made a game-saving stop, I thought the Crimson had things under control. It was getting good breaks and playing solid defense--both essential ingredients to giant-killing.
But Harvard struck out on two occasions, and against a savvy team, one mistake, let alone two, is usually more than enough to write your epitaph.
In my disbelief, I turned to Kahn for consolation. He wrote the Tribune's front-page story on Game Seven of the 1952 World Series, which the Yankees captured at Ebbets Field to win the title--a title even he would admit he thought Brooklyn could win. Kahn led with this: "For the Yankees, every year is next year."
It was in one breath a concession to the perennial success of the team of the decade and a warm allusion to the slogan that animated every fan of its rivals in Flatbush. It was elegant; it betrayed his subtle bias at the same time that it affirmed how unlikely it was that his bias would ever be rewarded.
And it nods to the reality that Kahn's initial disbelief wasn't realistic. The most implausible result would have been a Brooklyn upset.
The irony is, Princeton may be in the twilight of its incredible run. Brown beat the Tigers 2-1 Oct. 9 and controls its own destiny in the Ivy title race. This year might not be every year after all.
But for the Crimson, Kahn's lead is a good expression of the frustration that must have accompanied Saturday's loss. Princeton was reeling, but somehow a team stocked with NCAA Tournament veterans managed to surprise a team that outplayed it, keeping its chances at resurrecting itself going just a little longer.
And in the end, it shouldn't be surprising that the team of the decade found a way to win.
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