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Before the Northern Division Championships, Eric Byrd was more familiar with the bench than with the net. While the sophomore had played in a handful of games, he normally entered the game when the men’s water polo team had a sizable lead and was able to play without the enormous weight of a must-win situation on his shoulders.
And considering that Byrd’s pre-Harvard goalie experience was limited to one quarter during a high school contest—where Byrd’s team also had a huge lead—starting in goal for the crucial Northerns contests was, to say the least, a completely new situation.
But with starter Robbie Burmeister out with an injury, the monumental responsibility of playing goaltender for arguably the most important games of the season fell to the unheralded Byrd.
“A lot of the motivation in my mind was trying to make the loss of Robbie as small a factor as possible,” Byrd said. “I wanted to play well for the team and make it a good year for the seniors.”
Despite his lack of experience at the positions, Byrd helped Harvard earn two wins and a second-place finish—the best in the program’s history—and proved himself to be not just a replacement for the steadfast Burmeister but a bona fide force in goal.
“The biggest thing he proved is that he is a legit goalie,” co-captain Rick Offsay said. “He stepped up and has shown that he is capable.”
Byrd, whose normal position is at hole-defense, earned his spot as backup goalie during practices. The players normally all rotate into the goal, and Byrd, as he described it, was simply “the best non-goalie goalie.”
To go from being “the best non-goalie goalie” to defeating a team like Brown. however, required Byrd to squelch the nervousness welling up inside him before his first games in the limelight.
“I had a mild nervousness inside me throughout the week,” Byrd said. “But walking out of the hotel room, it hit me that I was about to face a hundred Brown fans that probably wanted to kill me.”
Byrd was able to keep the game close for the Crimson, who eked out a 9-8 lead in sudden death overtime.
Offsay, who said Byrd is naturally a quiet guy, noted the changes that Byrd went through during the game.
“At the end of the Brown game, he was really fired up and leading the team,” Offsay said.
With the two wins under his belt, the nervousness has subsided and Byrd is now focused on what he can do to help Harvard at the upcoming Eastern Championships, where he will be facing even tougher competition.
Prior to Northerns, Byrd was hesitant to come out of the goal to try to make steals or to talk a lot while in the cage, focusing more on simply stopping shots.
But with practice, his confidence has grown, and Byrd is now developing the skills he will need to continue to be effective for the Crimson.
Harvard coach Erik Farrar and the other players tested Byrd’s capability in goal through a “sink-or-swim method.” Instead of trying to methodically teach him how to play the position, the team focused more on using sheer playing time to improve Byrd’s skills.
The strategy seems to have paid off.
“I definitely think he is more confident in his skills,” Burmeister said. “He had a great games against Brown and Conn. College, and a huge part of goalkeeping is confidence.”
During the games, the goalie is not only accountable for stopping shots, but has to help coordinate the defense and constantly communicate with the offense information like the amount of time remaining on the shot clock. Byrd is settling into his position and learning how to speak up from the goal, which will be crucial at Easterns.
“He doesn’t talk quite as much [as Robbie],” Offsay said. “But he knows the game very well and has the respect of the team. If he tells us what to do, we’ll listen.”
The Crimson’s first game at Easterns will be against Salem International, a team which is “very offensively minded” according to Offsay. “We need Eric to keep it at a manageable pace.”
“If he stays confident and consistent, and I think he will, he could have a great tournament,” Burmeister added.
It’s not the position he signed on for, but Byrd is finding his new role equally satisfying as the old one.
“What’s better, making a steal on defense or stopping a shot? I’d say they’re about the same,” Byrd said. “But it’s nice to be able to play the hero and I feel like I can help the team a lot.”
In fact, Byrd’s success as a stand-in may have given him the confidence to do more “heroic” things beyond the edge of the pool.
“If you hear about any kids in a burning building or anything, give me a call,” he added.
—Staff writer Megha Parekh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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