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Athlete of the Week: Balleza Leads Field Hockey to Victory With Overtime Goal

By Amanda X. Fang, Crimson Staff Writer

Senior forward Marissa Balleza has started off her final season for Harvard exactly as expected–dominating and leading the offense just like she has since first donning Crimson three years ago. Not only has Balleza’s goal-scoring ability been consistent, she is also on the fast track to perhaps becoming one of the top scorers in Crimson field hockey history.

Last week’s nail-biter against University of the Pacific was yet another moment in Balleza’s long history of stealing a win for Harvard. The forward notched both of Harvard’s goals off of a team leading five shots in the double overtime contest.

After clinching the win against the Tigers, Balleza has notched an impressive tally of 36 career goals, only seven shy of Judy Collins ’99 who is the only player preventing Balleza from the top spot. The Maryland native has led the team in goals in each of her three seasons, with her best season coming in 2015 when she tallied 13 scores.

Not only does she lead the way in goals, but Balleza is also currently on the brink of breaking several other records, including points per game, goals per game and career points overall. Balleza’s impressive track record of 84 points in 53 games places her at second by only 0.04 points per game behind Sarah Mleczko ’79. Mleczko also is the only person who has had more goals per game in Harvard history with .76 goals per game, whereas Balleza is close behind at second with .68 goals per game.

“[She] scores when no one else can seem to score,” said coach Tjerk van her Waarden. “When you’re down a few goals, or when the game has been tied up. That’s what makes Marissa so special.”

This proved true during Harvard’s game against University of the Pacific. The Crimson trailed 1-0 at the half, but Balleza retaliated immediately in the second period. The senior got a free shot at the net with a penalty stroke that soared past the goalie to the top corner of the Tiger’s net.

Strokes, a rarity in field hockey where a shooter lines up in the center of the penalty circle to go one-on-one against the goalie, are a specialty of Balleza’s. In her six career opportunities with the Crimson, she has only missed on a single stroke.

After the score, the game proceeded to a gridlock with both teams unable to fully execute their offense. The tie resulted in overtime where only six players, instead of the traditional eleven, play for each team.

After a grueling 15 minutes of overtime, the Crimson could not seem to catch a break. A second 15 minute overtime frame was tacked on. Tensions ran high while energy ran low during the extra 30 minutes of play–field hockey operates on a “golden goal” rule where the first team to break the tie during overtime automatically is victorious.

This is exactly the type of situation where Balleza shines. Ten minutes into the second overtime, Balleza managed to salvage a thwarted penalty corner attempt and fired a soaring shot into the top of the University of the Pacific cage off of a pass from sophomore midfielder Emily Duarte.

Despite producing yet another miraculous goal during the final minutes, Balleza does not like to remind herself of the history-making opportunity.

“If I’m thinking about it, it kind of makes me lose focus,” Balleza said. “It honestly screws with my head and so I really try not to think about it and focus more on playing the field hockey at hand.”

Balleza’s final season for the team is also no doubt the most competitive season she has ever played at Harvard. With four nationally ranked teams on the schedule, the field hockey program has made a bold foray into playing more difficult teams than the past few seasons.

With 13 more games until the end of her collegiate career, Balleza has plenty of time to catch up to Collins. At her current rate of .68 goals per game, Balleza is projected to score around nine more goals this season to claim the scoring title and add her name to the record books.

“I mean she’s just fantastic. She shows her team what the value of Marissa is,” van her Waarden said. “Her skills and how she leads the forward line will be missed.”

Staff writer Amanda X. Fang can be reached at amandafang@college.harvard.edu.

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Field HockeyAthlete Of The Week