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The Harvard men’s lacrosse team took the field two weekends ago for its first game of the 2023 season in Charlottesville, Va., battling the Cavaliers of the University of Virginia. The first contest of the season did not prove to be fruitful for the Crimson in a 25-21 loss to the No. 1 ranked team in the country, coming out to a slow start that saw UVA jump out to a 9-0 lead in the first ten minutes of action.
The Cavaliers’ offense proved to be too dynamic for the Harvard defensive unit, taking advantage of small gaps given up by the defense both down on low attack and in transition. The UVA attackers and offensive-middies came out gunning for the ball. This started out with the team’s face off group, which did a solid job of winning the ball outright and completely shutting down Harvard offensive attempts when sophomore FOGO Andrew DeGennaro or first-year Matt Barraco were able to win the initial clamp. With this unequal possession time, UVA capitalized on their sets and took advantage of the Crimson’s defense, which came out a step slow. Virginia’s attackmen were especially successful shooting on the outside, using Harvard defenders as screens and preventing junior goalie Christian Barnard from reading the shots in the first quarter.
“Speaking defensively, we need to do a better job guarding guys straight up, and we have been working on that a lot this week. We have some of the best athletes in the country on our team and I can say with full confidence that we can keep up athletically with UVA and any other team,” first-year defender Charlie Muller noted. “With that being said, we have to master some off-ball things, and work on smaller things, but it all starts with on-ball guarding.”
Working on the small things and focusing on each and every play seemed to be the message head coach Gerry Byrne instilled in his players during halftime. Muller commented on this message and Byrne’s ability to rally his players to come out and play what looked like a completely different game in the second half.
“We had a really big improvement in the second half. Coach Byrne took us to the locker room and talked to us about how we were going to respond, and how we were going to react, and I think our second half proves that we are a team that won't quit, and that we have what it takes,” Muller stated. “We were caught off guard, and we made some mistakes that we have been working on throughout the week that should not have been made.”
First-year offensive-middie Teddy Malone commented on what the team needed to work on before its second game facing off against the Bucknell Bison, citing chemistry as the key to the Crimson’s future success. Before taking on UVA, the squad had only battled together for about three weeks.
“Something we’ve been working on is just our overall chemistry I’d say. Although we still have a majority of our team back, there are some new additions,” Malone said. “We’ve been concentrating on making sure everyone is on the same page, whether that be offense, defense, or the riding and clearing. Dissecting different schemes on film really helps us as a team.”
Film was definitely crucial in helping the team shape up for its second game against Bucknell, which proved to be a smoother fight for the team. The second regular-season battle took place on Saturday and marked the team’s home opener at Jordan Field, as both the men’s and women’s teams competed on the turf in honor of the One Love Foundation. This foundation is built on teaching young people about healthy relationships. It was founded in the memory of Yeardley Love, a former UVA lacrosse star who was tragically killed by her boyfriend. The teams dedicated their games to One Love.
On the field, the Crimson looked much more cohesive than in its first game. The first quarter saw Harvard jump to a 5-1 lead, ending the first quarter with the momentum of a four goal unanswered stretch. A theme throughout the game was man-up and man-down play: the Crimson saw six extra man opportunities and the Bison were man-up five times.
One extra-man opportunity defined the entirety of the game, however. A high-hit to the head saw Bucknell go man-down locked in for three minutes, and also caused a Bison player to be ejected for dangerous play. This hit halted action, and first-year LSM Sean Jordan was taken off the field in an ambulance. Coach Byrne has since tweeted that Jordan is doing well and is with his family out of the hospital, and gave insight into how he coached his players through the ordeal.
“Having had three children who played lacrosse, it is a parent’s worst nightmare to see their child on the ground and obviously you want to leave room for the experts to go there. Sean was alert and conscious and he was caring about the play and the game more than about himself,” Byrne praised. “So, as far as for the team, you can’t be thinking about revenge or being vengeful. You have to put your thoughts for your teammate in your heart and get on to the next play.”
According to senior middie and captain Nick Loring, the incident sparked intensity within the team to win for Jordan. He emphasized that they all agreed they wouldn’t get chippy, but that they would let their skill talk for them, and the team ended the second quarter ahead 9-3.
“It was a really tough moment seeing Sean go down and we are all thinking about him and praying for him. The mindset is that we are doing this for Sean now. We have to keep our heads and keep playing the same way we had, we had been playing really well up until that moment,” Loring said. “I was really proud of how the guys responded after that moment.”
Sophomore defenseman Martin Nelson spoke about what it was like playing both up and down a man. He noted that safety is the priority of the refs this season, and by calling the games tightly, there is a heightened need for a solid man down and man up unit.
“This season they are really focused on the high hits and protecting the players, which is obviously very good, but it’s leading to a lot more man-down situations, and so it is something that we have really focused on in practice,” Nelson said. “We are going to keep focusing on it, we just have to keep flying around out there and making plays.”
On the offensive end, play looked solid; the offensive unit had 54 shots, 27 of which were on goal, an indication that the team was creating motion on attack. Sophomore middie Owen Gaffney noted that despite the team’s win, there is always room to improve, especially going into this weekend’s battle against the University of Vermont, a scrappy team that plays Canadian-style crafty lacrosse.
“We did things really well as a team, but in terms of doing better, I think we want to work on improving everything,” Gaffney said. “Going into next week, getting one-percent better each day, and just going from there. Riding, clearing, offense, defense, there is always room to improve”
On the defensive end Nelson noted that compared to last week, the team looked a lot more solid, but that there are still areas that they hope to improve going forward.
“In particular, I think our rotation could continue to improve, but I think that we are getting there; and just clearing the ball once we get those opportunities to kill some possessions,” Nelson said. We communicated better, and I think that we were picking up inside guys and not freeing up on the slides while they had their hands free on the outside. Overall, I think that we played a lot better as a team defense.”
Byrne has high hopes for his squad, and is happy with the improvement his team made in practice between the UVA and Bucknell games.
“I think that we were better in nearly every area,” Byrne said. “We had better goaltending, we were better off the ground, we competed in the middle of the field much better than we did against Virginia, so I think it was a great opportunity for us to get back to the way that we play”
Despite this increased success on the field, Byrne is not resting on his laurels, and he is not underestimating the team’s next opponent.
“With Vermont, they have some Candaians on their team, they play a Canadian-style offense, and they are very skilled with stick-handling, and are very unbelievably well-coached too; they won their league the last two years and played in the NCAA tournament the last two years, so I expect them to be a challenge for us,” Byrne said.
The men’s lacrosse team returns to Jordan Field on Friday, March 3 at 4:30 p.m. against the University of Vermont. The action will also be streamed live on ESPN+.
— Staff writer Katharine A. Forst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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