In action Saturday at Ohiri Field, Harvard (3-13-1, 2-5-0 Ivy) played evenly with the Lions for most of the game but ultimately could not stop the Columbia Lions (10-4-3, 6-0-1) from winning their first Ivy League championship and first women’s title in any sport other than fencing and cross country.
After valiantly matching the Lions’ strike force with inspired play in the back and at goal, the staunch Crimson defense relented in the 82nd minute when Columbia senior Audrey Medal capitalized off a corner kick and scored the game’s only goal to send the Lions to the NCAA Tournament.
Motivated to provide a great performance for senior captain Laura Odorczyk’s last collegiate game, the Crimson seemed to put its past troubles behind it and made the league’s top team earn its title.
“Throughout the course of the season, the team has been taught to pick themselves up and keep going,” head coach Erica Walsh said. “It’s a credit to the character of the team. They’ve been fantastic to that end. They’re not going to stop battling even if their opponents are more talented.”
Looking to finish its season strong on Senior Day after losing its last three Ivy league contests, Harvard’s offense had several opportunities early in the first half at the Lions’ net. Freshman midfielder Katie Varney started the Crimson’s array of attacks in the 21st minute, but was denied by Columbia goalkeeper Allison Vespa.
Harvard threatened again in the 31st minute when sophomore midfielder Rachel Lau stepped past the Columbia defense and struck the ball to the top corner of the goal.
Vespa, however, stepped up again and managed to get a touch on the ball to send it over the net.
“I think in the first part of the game we did a good job of not playing their style,” Walsh said. “They’re very direct and towards the end of the game it started to become a little like kickball and we lost our style of play. But I would still say that even until the bitter end, Columbia never outplayed us.”
The Lions’ slumbering attack awoke in the second half, as Columbia fired three shots on target.
Led by Odorczyk, the lone senior on the Crimson roster, and supported by freshman goalkeeper Lauren Mann’s five saves, Harvard managed to keep Columbia scoreless until the final minutes of the game.
But a corner kick from Columbia’s Shannon Munoz entered the box in the 82nd minute, and after some intense tussling from both teams, Medal put the ball in the back of the net for the Lions victory.
As a testament to Harvard’s resolve, the Crimson kept battling, quite literally, until the last seconds of the game. Freshman defender Lizzy Nichols took three corner kicks in the last two minutes of the match, and the last one tested Columbia’s defense to the final whistle. In the last 30 seconds of play, the ball bounced around the Lions’ box but none of Harvard’s strikers could put a touch on it before time expired.
With the Crimson featuring only one senior on its roster, Senior Day became one last opportunity for Harvard to witness Odorczyk’s exploits on the pitch.
“Although she’s only one senior, what she brought to this team is irreplaceable,” Walsh said. “She’s the heart and soul of the team. She teaches us how to battle, how to work, how to be successful. Sometimes you may have seven or eight seniors, but [in this case], one counts for a lot more. I’d say it’s a big loss for us.”
And while the Crimson finished its season on a five-game losing streak, it boasts a plethora of young talent—six freshmen started against Columbia.
With depth and the further development of its talent, the experiences of this tumultuous season may serve to help the squad in the years to come.
“These guys play for the right reasons,” Walsh said. “They’re intrinsically motivated. We’ve got a lot to build on for the future. These guys never gave up on the season.”
Walsh added that although the team “only had three wins on the season, not once did I feel they gave up on each other.”