The Harvard men’s lacrosse team is in a precarious position. Having started with immensely high preseason expectations, and rising as high as 10th in the national polls, the team has now lost four straight games and is in danger of not making the Ivy League tournament, its only legitimate shot at a postseason berth.
The season started off well for the Crimson (4-5, 0-2 Ivy), as the team won four of its first five games, losing only to then-No. 6 Duke in a hard fought contest. The team had two Tewaarton Watchlist players in junior attackman Devin Dwyer and junior defenseman and captain Steve Jahelka and an additional preseason All-American in junior defenseman Bobby Duvnjak. The squad was looking to build off a regular season Ivy League championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament last year in taking the team to new heights in 2015.
But Harvard also had a few warnings. To start with, the team has one of the highest strengths of schedule in the nation, with its slate of games ranked as high as the fifth-most difficult by the NCAA. Additionally, many of these games, especially those against Duke and UNC, national powerhouses outside the Ivy League, were to be played away and in rapid succession.
“We’ve played really good teams,” Harvard coach Chris Wojcik ’96 said. “We’ve played really good competition, and unfortunately we’ve had trouble with gaining possessions against them, and that can really cost you.”
And then the injuries started. So far this season, Jahelka, who in years past has served as an anchor and vocal presence on the Harvard defense, has only been able to play in two of the Crimson’s nine games. Duvnjak has not been able to play at all. In addition to these two fixtures of last year’s Harvard defense, junior defensive midfielder Jack Breit has also only played in five of the Crimson’s games due in large part to injury.
Additionally, after a lackluster start to his season, tri-captain and senior goaltender Jake Gambitsky has also been out for the Crimson, meaning that the Harvard defensive unit as it currently stands is very different from the one that had been expected to start the season.
“We’re a deep team,” Gambitsky said. “Everyone out there can play Division I lacrosse at the highest level. It’s been tough, but some of the personnel changes that we’ve had this year have really allowed underclassmen to step up and contribute on the field, which is definitely a positive thing.”
Unfortunately for the Crimson, the lack of defensive continuity has shown on the scoreboard. Harvard has allowed 13.8 goals per game this season. The NCAA only publishes a ranking of the top-50 (of 68) Division I lacrosse teams in terms of goals against, but the 10th has allowed only 11.4. Twice this season, teams have managed to score over 20 goals on the Crimson, compared to no times in the previous five years.
This responsibility does not fall entirely on the shoulders of the Harvard defense, however. The two teams that managed to score over twenty goals both have top-five offenses, in Duke and Albany. The Great Danesspecifically has one of the most prolific attackmen to ever play collegiate lacrosse in senior Lyle Thompson, who netted nine goals and three assists in that game.
“Our defense has given up goals,” Wojcik said. “But our defense is also getting a lot better every single day. We’re moving in the right direction, and that’s what we need to see.”
Despite its defensive struggles, the Crimson’s offense has been playing exceptionally well. The team ranks seventh in the nation in scoring offense, averaging nearly 14 goals per game. Dwyer ranks seventh in the nation in assists per game, and junior attackman Deke Burns ranks 16th in goals per game.
And Harvard’s postseason hopes are not quite over. In order to gain a bid to the national tournament, the team would probably need to win the Ivy League tournament, which is still possible. However, only the top four teams in the conference make the tournament, and, unfortunately for the Crimson, the Ivy League is exceptionally deep.
Over the remainder of its season, Harvard will go up against the conference’s best, in Cornell and Princeton, and it must do well in those games, as well as in its games against weaker conference opponents Penn and Yale. Early losses to an emergent Brown team and lackluster Dartmouth squad have dug a hole for the Crimson, but escape is still possible if the team can do well against all of those teams.
“Its tough to start out 0-2 in conference games,” Gambitsky said. “But in the Ivy League, anyone can beat anyone. Last year we started 2-0, and compared to that, this is definitely a hole, but our effort and our mindset have been up to our standards in every game. We just need to execute better to win these next games.”
Whether or not that happens, the future is still bright for Harvard. Players who might not have gained any experience this year are instead playing often and improving rapidly. The defensive unit that returns next year will likely have more depth and experience than it ever has, and the offense that has been so prolific this season will return with a vengeance. This season may not have gone the way that the Crimson would have liked, but the team’s record does not tell the whole story.
“These early games that we lost were tough,” Wojcik said. “But I really feel like the team is improving each week. At this point, in terms of what we really want to see from our guys, that is what is really important.”
—Staff writer Theo Levine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.