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After tuning the television to the DirecTV broadcast of the College Sports Television selection show, the members of the No. 16 Harvard field hockey team squeezed themselves into a trio of sofas. In a comfortable room above the ice at Bright Hockey Center, the Crimson had to anxiously wait until the final quarter of the NCAA Tournament bracket was revealed to at last learn the opponent and site of its first-round game.
And even then, amazingly, it was not immediately certain.
When Harvard name was finally called, the scene quickly evolved into a series of busy cell phone calls and excited glances. The players were thrilled to learn they will be serving as host of the East region, where they will be joined by No. 3 Wake Forest, Connecticut, and Northeastern.
A scheduled opening-round clash against the defending champion Demon Deacons could do nothing to dampen the spirits of the eager Crimson squad.
“We’re psyched,” junior midfielder Jen McDavitt said.
After milling about for several minutes, the majority of the team departed in nervous anticipation of this Saturday’s playoff encounter, the first for Harvard in two years and only the fourth in school history.
Only McDavitt and captain midfielder Kate Gannon lingered with the team’s coaches when someone noticed that Big East conference rivals Connecticut and Boston College were slated to play in the other first-round game at Harvard.
By NCAA rules, teams in the same conference are not permitted to meet at that stage of the tournament, but thanks to some kind of error by the selection committee, Harvard’s schedule was thrown into question.
“Ooh,” McDavitt said. “Drama.”
Minutes later, the fog lifted as BC was replaced by Northeastern and the Crimson’s meeting with Wake Forest was confirmed.
Make no mistake, though: amid the confusion, the Harvard players were not wishing to replace the number two seed Demon Deacons on their docket.
“I’d almost rather play Wake Forest than UConn, because they don’t hold the same edge over us,” Gannon said, referring to a 3-1 loss to the Huskies on September 22.
Although the Crimson shares less of a history with the North Carolina-based Demon Deacons than its customary New England opponents, Harvard and Wake Forest have a track record nonetheless.
The Demon Deacons, then seeded fourth, bounced the Crimson from the NCAA Tournament in the first round in 2000 by a margin of 6-3. Then, in regular season action in Cambridge in 2002, Harvard scored first before eventually falling to the ACC powerhouse, 3-2. That season, Wake Forest went on to capture the first of two straight national championships. The school will seek to make it a three-peat in 2004.
“They’re a very talented team, a great hockey team,” head coach Sue Caples said. “And we’re excited to have the opportunity to play against them.”
The Demon Deacons are 16-3 entering the tournament this weekend. Although they may be without head coach Jennifer Averill, who is nine months pregnant, the team is still led by senior forward and ACC Offensive Player of the Year Kelly Dostal. As a measure of recent comparison, Wake Forest bested a Michigan team by two goals that the Crimson fell to by the same two-goal margin.
But the team refuses to shy away from the nation’s best, insisting the match-up plays to its strengths.
“We play up to the opponent,” Gannon said. “The better the opponent, the better we play.”
On Harvard’s side in the contest is the location, as they will effectively be playing a home game.
“It’s a huge advantage in tournament play,” Caples said. “Not having to travel, and being acclimated to the elements and the surroundings.”
Riding a three-game winning streak, the Crimson is currently playing its best field hockey of the season. The team was bolstered on Monday by the selection of six players to the All-Ivy teams, including junior midfielder Shelley Maasdorp, the Ivy League Player of the Year. Maasdorp needs just two goals Saturday to break the all-time Harvard single-season scoring record.
“I think the team is playing with a great deal of confidence,” Caples said. “You can’t ask for anything more as you enter a tournament, except to be at the top of your game—and I feel that’s where we are.”
A heavy underdog with a supportive crowd at its back on Saturday, the Crimson will play with nothing to lose and will give the visitors all they can handle.
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