For most seniors, spring brings relaxation, celebration, and lessened responsibilities. The end of college nears. Soon-to-be-graduates reward years of hard work with a lighter course load and more free time with friends.
The onset of senioritis is especially drastic for fall athletes. After an intense senior season, and after years of consistent training, these players leave behind their weeks of 20-plus hours of practice, team meetings, and games. Suddenly, they join the ranks of the Harvard “NARP,” or “non-athletic regular people,” a term that some sports teams use to describe non-varsity students.
Varsity athletes look forward to senior spring, and for good reason. However, water polo star Noah Harrison decided to give up this reward for something more important—one last season in Blodgett Pool after missing his entire junior season.
“A large part of the reason I came to play [at] Harvard was to play water polo with that team and with [coach] Ted [Minnis], on top of the other incredible things that Harvard has to offer,” Harrison said. “A huge portion of my time and my life has been dedicated to this sport. When you get that taken away, you want to come back. You want to take full advantage of it when you can.”
His decision to return paid dividends. In 2016, Harrison led Harvard to a season for the ages. The Crimson claimed its first Northeast Water Polo Conference championship, its first NCAA Tournament berth, and ultimately a spot in the Final Four.
“One of the things I enjoy so much about coaching college as opposed to when I coached high school is watching these young men and women grow into these amazing young adults,” Minnis said. “To watch Noah over these past few years not only grow as a water polo player but also as a man was amazing.”
In the fall of 2015, a day before the first games of his junior season, Harrison learned that he had mononucleosis. For four months, Harrison was not medically cleared to play for Harvard. After two impressive seasons, he traded his starting spot in the pool for a spot on the bench.
"That was it," Harrison said. "If I wanted to play high-level water polo as long as I can, then I had to come back. It also was a lot of the team. I had a lot of faith in the guys on the team. Ted was a huge help in the decision and was super supportive the entire time."
Across the country, in compliance with NCAA rules, student-athletes have up to five academic years to use for four years of playing eligibility. If players lose the majority of a season to an injury, then they are eligible to receive a medical redshirt or hardship waiver. In this fifth academic year, student-athletes can take extra classes or work toward a higher degree and still maintain playing eligibility.
Ivy League athletes do not have this luxury. The Ancient Eight is the only conference in the country that prohibits a redshirt year; student-athletes have only four years for academics and playing eligibility.
The only way around this rule is to take a voluntary leave of absence. Harrison became the first Harvard water polo player to go this route.
“I think getting mono in the first place was tough for him,” junior co-captain Harry Tafur said. “It was tough for him to sit by and watch everyone play. He really couldn’t compete because he was medically inactive. I think him making the decision to come back for another year was not difficult, as I think he really did want to finish his four years out. He really loves the sport and this team, so he wanted to get as much as he could out of it.”
As a fifth-year senior, Harrison came back hungry to make history. He led the team in all areas of the game with 86 goals, 63 steals, and 27 field blocks. He consistently put up dominating performances, earning the title of NWPC Player of the Week five times this fall. The Huntington Beach, Calif., native scored in 31 of his 34 appearances and posted 18 hat tricks.
Offense is not Harrison’s only strong suit, however, and he proved just as elite on the defensive end in his final season in crimson.
“Noah was always a scorer, but he also took a lot of pride in his perimeter defense,” Minnis said. “He posted a ton of steals for us. He would be able to match up on other teams’ top players and get stops for us…. Noah did a lot of things for this team that are going to be missed.”
Harrison’s team-leading statistics came as no surprise, as he has led the Crimson in goals three of his four seasons and in steals all four.
“I think having to miss his junior year and watch his class and his teammates play and battle gave him a different perspective,” Minnis said. “He came back his super-senior year just ready to enjoy the season and make the biggest impact he could in the water. Not as a scorer but as a leader. Not as a captain but as a senior leader who understood what it was going to take to get where we wanted to go.”
"It was a little overwhelming to get the ring and the diploma on the same day. It was kind of like the nail in the coffin," senior attacker Noah Harrison said.
Socially, Harrison also brought a unique aspect to the team. His decision to return for a fifth year demonstrated passion for the sport and love for his teammates. But he also had a veteran perspective that few players, or even seniors, possessed.
This combination allowed Harrison to serve as a bridge between the experienced players and rookies.
“[Harrison] being a super senior showed a lot of the younger players especially how much the older players on the team care about the program and care about our success,” Tafur said. “So him coming back for that fifth year, when he could have easily called it and graduated with his class, let everyone know just how important the team is to us. That definitely helps to motivate kids to work extra hard and push themselves.”
In December, Harrison received both his NWPC champion ring and his diploma, two important milestones marking the end of his collegiate career. One semester after his classmates graduated, Harrison wrapped up his time as a member of the Crimson.
“You work so hard throughout college on school and water polo, spending four hours or more across the river in season, and then all of your classes and traveling and trying to balance everything,” Harrison said. “It was a little overwhelming to get the ring and the diploma on the same day. It was kind of like the nail in the coffin.... I’m like ‘Okay, I’m done. I graduated—this is it.’”
Officially, Harrison’s career is finished, but he will maintain connections to Harvard and to its water polo program. During his semester off, thanks to his professors and the support of the Harvard Athletic Department, Harrison was able to start a master’s program at the Harvard Medical School and is expected to graduate next spring.
And Harvard water polo also isn’t quite ready to move on from the Harrisons. Noah’s little sister, Julie, just finished off her freshman year for the women’s team.