Winning the Ivy League Championship with a loss under one’s belt is difficult—but not impossible.
Over the weekend, the Harvard women’s soccer team (6-4, 0-1 Ivy League) dropped a tough conference opener to Penn, 1-0, and now faces an uphill battle on the path to defending its 2016 league crown.
“We just didn’t get the result we wanted,” senior co-captain Caroline Chagares said of the opening loss. “We know all these Ivy League games are going to be really tough.”
Just how rare is winning the Ancient Eight title with at least one defeat? It occurred fairly recently, actually—the 2014 version of the Crimson went 5-1-1 in conference play and finished atop the leaderboard by virtue of the rest of the league beating up on one another.
That squad was an outlier, however. Dating back to 2011, every other champion had to go undefeated in Ivy League play in order to claim the crown.
That narrative alone, however, tells nothing of the whole story—one loss does not write off a team. After all, making a comeback in the standings it still entirely possible.
“Chances are, nobody’s going to win all the games in the Ivy League this year,” senior co-captain Marie Becker said. “The league has gotten so competitive over the past few years.”
There are six more games to go, and it’s a simple math problem to see how Harvard can make up the ground. Three points for a win, one for a tie, and zero for a loss. Winning out can give the Crimson an even higher game-point total (18) than it had last year (17) when it captured the title.
“There was some disappointment after the loss on Saturday, but we mentally bounce back really well afterwards,” Becker said. “Now we have to make the best out of the situation and stay positive.”
Harvard hasn’t lost twice in a row this season, which is a good sign for a team looking to rebound. Of course, moving forward, the Crimson will need some luck, some help from the competition, and a lot more goals.
All year long, Harvard has been a defensive juggernaut, anchoring a veteran backline with a pair of platooning goalies that can make spectacular saves. Junior Danielle Etzel and sophomore Kat Hess have logged almost identical times between the pipes this season. The former has played 464:57 in net, while the latter has spent 454:43 there.
The problem, however, has been generating offense. The struggles of the attack become apparent when the Crimson starts playing from behind. When its opponent scores first, Harvard is 0-4 this season.
Junior midfielder Leah Mohammadi and freshman forward Murphy Agnew lead the team’s attack. Mohammadi has posted nine points on four goals and an assist, while the rookie Agnew has chipped in seven points on two goals and three assists.
Four other Crimson players have scored a goal. A good mix of rookies and veterans—three freshmen and five upperclassmen—have posted at least one point.
“Our mindset now is, we have to attack,” Becker said. “Now we’ve really got to go all in.”
A more aggressive approach to the game could pay dividends against Harvard’s second Ivy opponent of the year, Yale, which it takes on in New Haven on Saturday.
“We know that we’re going to go into the game strong, and we know Yale’s a good opponent,” Chagares said. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity to play them.”
The Bulldogs are 0-3-1 in their last four contests after starting the season 6-0. Yale likewise lost its Ivy opener in shutout fashion, downed by Princeton, 2-0, and will be vying with the Crimson to get on the conference board.
The Tigers, for their part, look like a formidable squad, having risen to No. 7 in the RPI national Division I polls compiled on Sept. 24. The jump was sizable after Princeton was ranked 16th at the time it played Yale.
No. 7 Princeton is 8-1 and already 1-0 in conference play.
According to the RPI rankings, the second- and third-best teams in the Ivy League are Yale (85th) and Brown (87th), respectively, with the Crimson sitting at fourth (109th) in the polls.
Despite the trek ahead, there are positives that Harvard can look to.
“The more time passes, the closer the team has gotten, and I’m just amazed by the team chemistry this year,” Becker said. “Every time we practice, every time we see each other, it’s just getting better and better.”
Even if it doesn’t pull off a comeback, the Crimson veterans will be fighting hard next to a promising bunch of freshman forwards.
As for historical precedent, there was a stretch between 2007 and 2010 in which the Ivy League champion always had at least one game in the loss column.
So one can’t rule it out quite yet.
—Staff writer Bryan Hu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.