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The miracle run of the Harvard rugby club team came to an end yesterday at Stanford. Facing Air Force in the finals of the National Championships, the Crimson fell to the Zoomies 45-37.
That score does not tell the tale of Harvard’s season, however. Seeded 15th in a 16-team tournament, the Crimson defied the odds and surprised many on its improbable march to yesterday’s title match. Along the way, it knocked off the No. 2 team in the country in Utah, No. 10 in Penn State and third-ranked Army.
Harvard entered the Final Four weekend with both odds and history against it.
Odds said that the No. 15 team wouldn’t be better than No. 3. Then again, the same was probably said before the Crimson defeated the second-ranked team in the nation two weeks ago.
History revealed that Army and Harvard are not strangers—the teams have played twice this year, and the Black Knights have returned to West Point with a ‘W’ each time.
Crimson juniors and seniors remember a game two years ago when the servicemen bludgeoned them 75-6.
“Army has had our number for quite a long time,” junior co-captain Ben Balskus said.
But Harvard made a statement on Saturday, beating Army for the first time this season, 27-26. In a physical game, even by rugby standards, the Crimson surprised the Black Knights by taking control of the game early.
“We caught them totally off-guard when we came out so strong,” junior co-captain center Marc Wayshak said.
Army regained its composure 20 minutes into the contest, but Harvard had already converted three tries. The play was even temporarily before the Crimson mounted a strong offensive near the end of the first half. Juniors James Harrington and Jeff Reiman and freshman center Tim Naylor scored tries, allowing Harvard to take a 24-13 lead into halftime.
The Black Knights played the Crimson evenly for much of the second, outscoring it 13-3 in the final frame. But it wasn’t quite enough, and Harvard emerged with a 27-26 victory.
“Coming out and really sticking it to Army felt good,” Wayshak said.
The team adhered to the recipe it used against Army when it faced off against Air Force, coming out strong in the opening minutes. The cadets were not surprised, however, and played Harvard hard in the first half, entering the locker room with a lead.
“We felt that we played a really strong weekend, but felt like we could have played a lot better against Air Force,” Balskus said. “It wasn’t the best game of the tournament that we played.”
The Crimson started the second half at a fevered pitch. The Zoomies’ lead slowly shrunk over more than 25 minutes, and Harvard had the score tied at 37 with less than 13 minutes to play.
That was as close as the Crimson could get, though, as Air Force managed a try and a penalty kick in the closing minutes to pull out the 45-37 win.
Despite acknowledging the disappointment of a loss in the national finals, the rugby team was aware of the tremendous improvement such a loss indicates.
“Getting second place at Nationals—that kind of success is something we talked about,” Balskus said. “It was a goal we set for ourselves this year.”
And it is leaps and bounds ahead of where Harvard finished a year ago, when the team didn’t even qualify for the Sweet Sixteen, losing in the regionals to UConn.
“We played phenomenally this entire tournament,” junior Ben Pickard said.
“We’re No. 2 in that nation,” Wayshak added. “We’re definitely proud of the way we played. This run was an exciting thing to be a part of.”
—Staff writer Timothy M. McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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