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30 Years Later: The Historic Season That Harvard Women’s Lacrosse Was Perfect

The difference between the one-win-short season of 1989 and the success of 1990 was the lessons learned and experiences gained from the former. So that is where the story begins.

The women of Harvard lacrosse made history as the first women's team to win an NCAA title for the Crimson in 1990.
The women of Harvard lacrosse made history as the first women's team to win an NCAA title for the Crimson in 1990. By Courtesy of Sarah Leary
By Mackenzie Condon, Crimson Staff Writer

It has been 30 years since the Harvard women’s lacrosse team made history. In 1990, the Crimson outscored Maryland 8-7 to win the first National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship for a Harvard women's team. Many team members share the sentiment that the team could have, or as co-captain Julia French Veghte ‘90 put it, “should have,” won the title in 1989, but the team lost in the finals to Penn State. The team’s head coach, Carole Kleinfelder, who retired in 2003, is also quick to point out that a few of her teams in the early 1980s were, by her standards, talented enough to win it all. But in the end, it was the 1990 team that put every small piece together and fully converted on its potential. What made the difference? What was so special about 1990?

“It’s important to acknowledge that the 1989 season was what allowed 1990 to happen,” Char Joslin ‘90 said.

The difference between the one-win-short season of 1989 and the success of 1990 was the lessons learned and experiences gained from the former. So that is where the story begins.

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The 1989 season started the way all seasons did with Kleinfelder: tryouts. Today, the process of trying out is reserved for walk-on athletes. However, with Kleinfelder, no one could get too comfortable.

“Everyone always checked the door outside of Carole’s office to make sure they were on the list. It didn’t matter what year you were or how well you had done. Even when I already knew I was captain in 1990, I remember checking for my name to be sure,” Veghte said.

Kleinfelder’s no-free-pass philosophy ensured that everyone who made the team in a given season was ready to contribute on the field. At the time, there were much tighter limits on how many people could travel, and a much smaller team budget.

“If you were a junior or senior and you weren’t going to be starting, I looked at it as taking away a spot from someone else,” Kleinfelder said.

It was no accident that the try-out policy pushed everyone to show up on day one ready to go. Kleinfelder’s policy ensured that her team did not have to raise the intensity in the championship part of the season by setting the expectation of starting the season at that level.

“Every practice and every game was always important to us. You learn things as you go, and that means you can get better each game, but the intensity had to be there from the first practice,” Kleinfelder said.

The team was perfect throughout the regular season in 1989, taking down every Ivy League opponent and every non-conference and scholarship school that they played. Harvard’s winning streak continued for the first two matchups of the NCAA tournament in May. The squad outplayed Boston College and then Princeton to etch the Crimson’s name into the final bracket of the tournament.

The national championship was a face-off between Penn State and Harvard. Penn State had won two years before in a one-goal game against Temple University. The Crimson, on the other hand, was the first Ivy League school to be playing in an NCAA championship final.

“While I think we all thought there was a chance we could win, there was also definitely this feeling that maybe we weren’t the better team. That feeling was always a little bit more there when we would play scholarship schools,” goalkeeper Sarah Leary ‘92 said. “When we made it to the finals in 1989, I think that maybe there was this sense of being happy just to be there.”

At Farrell Stadium in West Chester, Pa., Harvard was denied its perfect season. Penn State won 7-6 to add a second NCAA trophy to its case, and the Crimson left empty-handed.

“Yeah, now we don’t look back on 1989 and feel happy for just getting to have been there. There may have been a sense of that before and even during the game, but afterwards, when we knew we had come so close, we realized we deserved to aim higher,” Joslin said. “I think after that game we really felt that we were good enough to have won the national championship.”

While that realization could not change what had happened, it did serve as the driving impetus for the historic season of 1990.

“We had three seniors in 1989 who should have gotten to win that year. Part of our motivation was also definitely the idea that we were doing it for them,” Joslin said.

On top of that, there were seven seniors on the 1990 roster.

“This time, there was no next year,” Veghte said.

When the team started its training in 1990, everyone was sure of what the goal was. The skills they needed to win had been there in 1989, but the mindset from the year before offered the largest room for growth as they moved forward.

“We went into the season as a team saying that winning the national championship was our goal, and we believed that everything we did was to reach it,” Joslin said. “Our mindset forced us to hold ourselves to a higher standard at each step of the process.”

Kleinfelder also cites Leary’s goalkeeping skills that emerged in 1990 as an important variable from the year before. Leary had not seen much action as a first-year in 1989. In 1990 she became a cornerstone between the pipes. By the end of her college career, she would be honored with the Ensign C. Marklin Kelly award as the top female college lacrosse goalie, so her first season in the starting position in 1990 was a significant addition to the defensive lineup.

The 1990 season began the same way that the 1989 season had started: every win was followed by another. To spectators, the team looked just as dominant as they had the year before. To Kleinfelder’s trained eye, there was something different, better, and there would have to be in order for the final result to change.

“You can have talent, but you also need the team to work together in a special way, and that’s what I saw happen in 1990,” Kleinfelder said.

On paper, the history-making 1990 team appears to have been an unhindered, destined-for-greatness force. Leary said, “When you look at our 1990 team, it is really easy to think national champions, 15-0, and it looks like this straight line to victory. When you actually peel back the layers, there was a lot more to it than that.”

Lynn Frangione '90 and Char Joslin '90 embrace after a Harvard goal in the NCAA final against Maryland.
Lynn Frangione '90 and Char Joslin '90 embrace after a Harvard goal in the NCAA final against Maryland. By Courtesy of Sarah Leary

To Leary’s point, there seemed to be many moments during the season when it could have gone either way: times they were tied with opponents, or down by one, or two, or four, and yet the 1990 team exhibited a unique kind of competitive greatness, always ending up on top when each final whistle blew. With every step, every obstacle, they never allowed their tight grip on excellence to slip.

When it came time for the NCAA tournament, the change in mindset from the year before became more obvious.

“Nobody was just happy to be there. We had been through it before, we could see it, we could taste it, and we knew what it was like to lose, and we weren’t going to have that happen again,” Joslin said.

In the semifinal game, the Crimson faced Temple University, a team that already had two national championships of its own. Yet that day at Palmer Stadium in Princeton, N.J., with Harvard’s perfect record, the Crimson was not the underdog, and the squad did not play like it either. Harvard handily took down its opponent 13-7 in order to advance.

The scene for a second chance had been set, and this time it was the University of Maryland Terrapins standing in the way.

Goalkeeper Sarah Leary '92 high-fives her team during introductions before the NCAA title game.
Goalkeeper Sarah Leary '92 high-fives her team during introductions before the NCAA title game. By Courtesy of Sarah Leary

“We just knew we were going to win. We all felt it. It didn’t matter what happened throughout the game. We all had this belief that, when it was all said and done, that we would be the winners,” Leary said.

At the beginning of the game, that perspective might have seemed naive or foolish. Right from the start, the Terrapins were on the attack. Before anyone could have gotten into the rhythm of the game, Harvard found itself down by four.

“They really had much more possession of the ball, and they were setting the pace of the game. Something had to change,” Veghte said.

Spectators watched as players from the Crimson’s bench entered the contest.

“We just had to do something different.” Kleinfelder continued, “I put a few people in who hadn’t been on the field much in previous games. Maryland couldn’t have watched film of these players, so they didn’t know how to handle them the way they knew how to handle the group that started on the field.”

The players who entered brought a new game plan with them from Kleinfelder. She had assigned players to double-team whoever had the ball for Maryland, and sure enough, Harvard’s opposition began to show vulnerability.

“Carole [Kleinfelder] is a brilliant tactician of the game. She was like our secret weapon. That’s why it didn’t matter that we were down at the beginning because we knew she would know what to do,” Leary said. “Ultimately, she found a way to change the momentum.”

From then on, the Crimson chipped away relentlessly at the Terrapin lead. With five minutes left on the clock, Harvard had tightened the score, but Maryland was still ahead 7-6. It was then that first-year Liz Berkery ‘93 ran the ball down the entire field and delivered a strike to the back of Maryland’s net to tie the game. There were four-and-a-half minutes left on the clock, but Harvard was not rattled.

“It was important that we had been in tie-game situations and situations when we were down by multiple points throughout the season,” Joslin said. “When the championship game was tied up, it wasn’t something we weren’t sure we could handle because we had become used to finding a way.”

Joslin herself would end that season with All-American honors and a team-leading 44 goals.

Perhaps Kleinfelder’s belief in “the why” of the team’s success in 1990 was on best display in those last crucial four-and-a-half minutes. Yes, she had coached many talented players in the past. However, the special thing in 1990, she believes, was not the individual talent of all-star players like Joslin but instead the way all of her players worked together as a unit. This meant that anyone was trusted to score for the Crimson, which also gave its opposition more difficulty defending.

Among the most trusted was Jenny Walser ‘90. The senior’s role on the team had included being clutch in pressure-filled moments. Two out of the three times that Harvard won by a single goal in the regular season, it was Walser who put the squad in front. Walser is from Baltimore, and when her late-game heroics were needed most in the NCAA championship game against her home-state team, she wasted no time answering the call.

When Walser received the ball, she was 20 feet outside the crease. Executing on the opportunity, just like she had done in the past, she sent the ball flying past the Maryland goalie and into the net. The goal electrified the Harvard fans who had made the road trip in hopes of witnessing that type of moment. The players, however, knew it was not over.

The Crimson remained vigilant as they focused on playing keep-away and maintaining the score until the clock ran out. That said, one final roadblock stood in Harvard’s way before the game’s end. With 30 seconds left to play, the referee’s whistle blew. The call was an illegal running out of bounds, and it was against Harvard. For Maryland to be given the ball with 30 seconds left solidified the season finale as an all-time classic in the sport.

Unlike Harvard’s ability to rely on anybody on the field, Maryland found strength in having the most outstanding individual of the NCAA tournament, forward Mary Ann Oelgoetz.

“We knew they were going to give her [Oelgoetz] the ball. We knew she would have the opportunity to take a shot,” Veghte said.

For Leary, who as goalkeeper was the Crimson’s last line of defense, the moment was a critical opportunity for her.

“I distinctly remember in that moment saying to myself this is why you play,” Leary said. “I remember being relatively calm. I knew I was going to get a shot, but I wasn't scared of that moment, and I truly don’t think anyone else was.”

Each Harvard player did their job as Oelgoetz charged into Crimson territory. “I knew I could trust my teammates, and sure enough, our All-American co-captain Maggie Vaughan ‘90 did her job defending Mary Ann [Oelgoetz] to make it difficult for her to take a good shot,” Leary said.

“Hold the post,” is the line that Leary remembers saying over and over again as Oelgoetz approached. Sure enough, Vaughan and the other Crimson defenders did their job, and Leary did hers. The pressure the defense put on Oelgoetz forced her to take an uncharacteristic shot.

“She really shouldn’t have even taken that shot. It was a bad shot. That’s what can happen when the defense makes it difficult and time feels limited,” Kleinfelder said.

The ball bounced off of Leary’s pads, and Vaughan scooped it up, ending any uncertainty of the Crimson winning the NCAA title. The Harvard women’s lacrosse team had done what it had set out to do.

“There wasn’t a feeling like it. When it all came together like that, it really became this magical experience that we all shared. Of course, you want to hold onto that,” Leary said.

Julie Clifford Smail '90 holds the national championship trophy. Before the NCAA semifinal game, she took her organic chemistry exam in a hotel room and is now a doctor.
Julie Clifford Smail '90 holds the national championship trophy. Before the NCAA semifinal game, she took her organic chemistry exam in a hotel room and is now a doctor. By Courtesy of Sarah Leary

The magnitude of Harvard’s win still holds today. In The Crimson’s 1990 article about the NCAA championship, the writer compared Walser’s winning goal to a clutch backhand shot that won the Harvard men’s ice hockey team the NCAA title the year before, Harvard's first NCAA championship in a men's sport. The truth is, however, there was really nothing that could be compared to Walser’s title-clinching goal. Women's teams at Harvard had won national championships before, but no women’s team at Harvard had yet claimed an NCAA title. The 1990 women’s lacrosse team shattered the glass ceiling for other Crimson women’s NCAA teams to follow their lead, and multiple have.

Now they are doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and mothers, just to name a few of the many things they are up to. Still, they do find ways to hold onto the transformative experience they shared. There is a group text to this day that has been running for years, and they get together in person almost annually despite living all across the country. When sheltering-in-place became the norm for most of the nation and world due to the Covid-19 pandemic, they scheduled Zoom calls once a week.

“Our 1990 season was the most amazing goal-setting experience you can have,” Joslin said. “But even back then, and now thirty years later, the biggest gain from that whole experience was the people. From that experience, and from every year we played on that team, we all gained friends for life.”

— Staff writer Mackenzie Condon can be reached at mackenzie.condon@thecrimson.com.

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