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The No. 20 Harvard field hockey team proved on Saturday that a full week of well-planned practice can turn a season around.
In a showdown between two of the three teams still undefeated in Ivy play, Harvard (6-3, 3-0 Ivy) dominated Cornell (5-4, 3-1 Ivy) end-to-end in a 5-1 thrashing.
"We've been leading up to this," said Harvard Coach Sue Caples. "We've had a great week of practice, and we're playing fundamentally sound hockey. We were on, and it was really great to see."
Saturday's Crimson squad was vastly improved from the team that had previously lost two games in a row. A revamped penalty corner attack and increased movement off the ball throughout the game allowed the Crimson to open up the circle and explode for five goals, including a hat trick by senior forward Kate Nagle.
"We had a lot of good movement in the circle, and a lot of good passing," Nagle said. "We had a full week of practice, so we knew what we had to do. We just came out and played the way we planned on."
Harvard was in control from start to finish. The Crimson outshot the Big Red 24-10 and allowed few Cornell scoring opportunities on the day. The Crimson led 2-0 at the half, and a Cornell goal off a penalty corner with 11:17 left was all that kept Nagle from getting a pure hat trick after the break.
"We are a very sound team," Caples said. "We had a zillion different lineups in there and people are very versatile, so it came through. We have great athleticism out there and everyone played."
The creative execution on penalty corners allowed Harvard to draw first blood 16 minutes into the match. In past games, the common strategy was to have co-captain Liz Sarles hit the ball immediately after the required stop at the top the circle. But in all eight of Harvard's corners in Saturday's game, Sarles either faked the hit or passed right off, ultimately allowing sophomore back Katie Scott to take the shot.
"We have all these corners, but we don't always use them," Caples said. "You didn't see a straight shot today. We did it to their defense. They come out on the corners, and their goalie is very aggressive."
On the eventful fourth corner of the day for Harvard, Sarles whiffed waist-level into the air, then passed off to Scott, who flicked the ball towards the net. The shot was blocked by a Cornell defender, but sophomore forward Philomena Gambale secured the rebound and pushed the ball straight into the left corner of the net before Cornell keeper Maureen Sullivan could react. It was Gambale's team-leading seventh goal of the season.
"I think we're good at getting goals from tipping and deflections from the straight shot," Caples said. "We never scored directly off [a corner] but we got some rebounds. Sometimes you go with what's working and what they feel confident with in practice, and they like these corners."
The Harvard defense was matched up against two of the leading scorers in league play, Cornell forwards Anna Starkey and Ashleigh Snelson. Starkey nearly put Cornell on the board just 10 minutes into the match, but her shot from five yards out clanked off the left post.
The key defensive play of the game came with 12 minutes left in the first half when Cornell was able to control the ball just a yard out of the Harvard goal. Junior back Sarah Luskin was there for the Crimson, and with one long swoop of her stick, she plucked the ball away and cleared it well out of the circle, preserving the 1-0 lead.
The Crimson managed to pad its lead right before the half. After an attack by co-captain Maisa Badawy, Harvard earned a free hit deep on the left side of the field. Nagle took the ball, beat a defender and found an obstructed path to the net. She sent the ball across the goal, and it deflected out to the right side, where junior midfielder Eliza Dick easily converted an open shot into the net.
Harvard was relaxed and wholly dominant from then on. Outside of a pair of penalty corners at the very start of the second half, Cornell did not control the ball in Crimson territory for the next 20 minutes.
Eleven minutes into the half, the Nagle scoring flurry began on an opportunity created entirely by Sarles. The co-captain maneuvered almost 45 degrees along the border of the circle and fired a soft shot towards the net. The Big Red defense, mesmerized by Sarles' stick work, left Nagle wide open in front, where she forcefully drove home the feed from Sarles.
Cornell finally got on the board at the 13:27 mark, when freshman Crimson keeper Katie Zacarian was pelted by three Big Red shots in succession during a penalty corner. The second shot was scooped high and it deflected weakly off her right side. She could only watch as Cornell freshman Lindsay Grace put in the rebound.
But the play of Gambale and Nagle made a Cornell comeback impossible. After delivering intense pressure onto the net, Gambale pushed the ball to the top of the circle, where Nagle was able to gain control, with only Sullivan to beat. Nagle, with skillful stick handling, was able to force Sullivan to fall forward, and then easily maneuver past her.
With 5:43 left, Nagle earned the hat trick. Taking a pass from Gambale deep into the left side of the circle, she managed to back away from a pair of defenders and fire the ball straight into the net. The hat trick gave Nagle six goals on the season.
The 5-1 Crimson victory bore sharp contrast to last year's 1-0 defeat, in which Harvard dominated the game but could never finish any of its chances. This time, however, thanks mainly to Nagle's poise and patience, the Crimson converted on a high percentage of its scoring opportunities.
"It was sweet revenge," Nagle said. "We just keep on improving week in and week out. We've had a couple of bumps but I think we can take it to the next level."
Having moved past Cornell in the league standings, Harvard is in as good a position as ever to contend for its first Ivy title since 1991.
"This is a different team from last year," Caples said. "Right now there's not a weakness out there. We're very strong at every position. We don't have 26 kids on our team [like Cornell,] but the 16 we have, every single one of them can go in there and impact this game."
The win places Harvard in a tie for first with No. 8 Princeton (5-3, 3-0 Ivy). The Tigers have played the most difficult schedule humanly possible in the past two weeks, losing three close games in a row to the nation's three top-ranked teams. Dartmouth (6-2, 3-1 Ivy), who beat the Crimson twice last year and has already lost 5-0 to Princeton this year, looks to be the other main threat.
Harvard plays non-league contests against Northeastern and at Boston College in the next two Wednesdays, and an Ivy matchup against Yale at Jordan Field on Saturday, before the showdown against the Tigers the following weekend. The Crimson will have to avoid looking past any opponent and maintain its improved play in order to make a serious run at the Ivy crown.
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