Awarding a title of “Game of the Year” at a school with such an historic rivalry as Harvard vs. Yale might seem a bit trivial. It seems to be the obvious choice to praise such a game for its history and hype. However, this particular year, the Harvard men’s lacrosse team pulled off a comeback victory against No. 4 Cornell that altered the trajectory of its season, put it back in contention for a spot in the Ivy Tournament, and proved that despite not performing to the same level as last year, that the team did indeed deserve to be lauded amongst the other top schools in the nation.
In a performance that was the best of the season for the young Crimson team, the Harvard men’s lacrosse team shocked the lacrosse world with a decisive 10-8 comeback upset against No. 4 Cornell. Coming into the contest battling a slump that included losses against Boston University and Dartmouth, the team played with a fire and intensity to dig out a win and topple the Big Red.
In head coach Gerry Byrne’s signature fashion, the game was attended by thousands of fans who brought energy to Jordan Field. Harvard hosted the most spectators in the Ivy League for the second season in a row, and this energy helped create a vivacious atmosphere that propelled the team.
“The combination of nearly 3000 fans, a sunny day ,and a top-five opponent created a Holy Trinity that propelled our team to play its most complete game of the year,” Byrne remarked.
The Ivy League as a whole produced powerhouse men’s lacrosse programs in the 2022 season, and the competitiveness between programs heightened as the coveted slots for the League tournament became necessary to secure an NCAA Tournament bid. This carried into 2023, a season which marked a decisive decrease in the number of Ivy League schools in the NCAA Tournament from six teams (out of seven total) to just two: tournament winner Princeton and wild card bid Yale.
The victory over Cornell was a pivotal moment for the Crimson because up to that point, the team’s performance throughout the season had been markedly more sluggish than the previous season. Earning a win against the Big Red was a victory not just for the team’s record, but also for its confidence. The win proved that Harvard had the capacity to play top teams, and that it could hold its own.
“Defeating the NCAA Championships runner-up from 2022 in front of a packed house is a predictor of where this program can go in future years, and we hope for many more wins like this as we welcome not only our Ivy League rivals to campus every year but NCAA powerhouses like Duke and Virginia as well,” Byrne noted.
The game proved to be a triumphant four quarters of lacrosse for the squad. After a rocky start where Cornell took a quick three-goal lead, the young squad showed poise in regrouping in a timeout called by Byrne.
It then returned to the field, scoring twice in the first before eventually tying the score and remaining neck-in-neck for the remainder of play. This poise was evident as well in how the Crimson strung together cohesive plays across the field. Struggling throughout the season to excel both offensively and defensively in the same game, this particular contest showed that the team had what it takes to rally back and defend its home turf.
Led by junior goalie Christian Barnard — who with a 66% save percentage was named the Ivy League Player of the Week — as well as the standout first-year attackman Teddy Malone — who was named the Ivy League Rookie of the Week for his performances against both Dartmouth and Cornell — the team shined on both ends of the field. Cornell played with a speed that challenged the Crimson squad for that first few minutes of play before the team was able to adapt and then excel against it.
“They are a high-energy, high-skill team, and you can’t meet it, you have to exceed it. So, I challenged our guys in the locker room before to be great,” Byrne said. “You know that you’re going to be imperfect, so you’ve got to move through mistakes, which is a good life lesson, and we just needed to compete with them.”
“They are one of the most competitive teams, high-energy, ferocious, physical teams, and we had to meet it and exceed it,” continued Byrne. “I think that when we were playing well — which was a lot of that game — we did that.”
On the defensive end, sophomore defenseman Collin Bergstrom locked-down Tewaaraton Award Finalist C.J. Kirst, who was third in the nation in points and first in goals. Mitigating the threat allowed the defense to play aggressively off-ball and work as a unit. This unit consisted of sophomore defender Tommy Martinson and first-year defender Charlie Muller, who together held the 28th most efficient offense in the nation — averaging 14.56 goals per game — to only eight goals and a 16.3% efficiency rate, allowing just eight goals on 49 possessions.
“I think we put it all together today. The offense was scoring goals, and the defense was playing very well,” Barnard stated at the time. “They have one of the best players in the country in C.J. Kirst and I think that we did a really good job trying to minimize him. You can’t contain him completely, but you [have to] minimize his plays — I think our defense did an extraordinary job of that.”
This solid play on the defense translated into the team’s most stellar performance on offense of the entire season. Despite having trouble settling down for the first few minutes of play, the offense looked fast. Gaining a step on defenders, making crisp passes, and moving the ball allowed the attack to penetrate the seams, initiate one-on-one dodging, and play clean team offense. Similarly to the defense, which plays a team-style rotation without one player taking on a specific matchup, the offense showed incredible depth as well. Eight different players tallied goals, which proved that the team was able to capitalize on those looks.
While the season did not end the way that the squad would have liked, this game shows just how great the team can be when it strings together four cohesive and aggressive quarters of lacrosse. In a season that was touted as a breakthrough by lacrosse insiders, only to then fall short of that goal, this performance showcased the grit of the men’s team to battle against one of the toughest opponents in the nation, and come out victorious.
— Staff writer Katharine A. Forst can be reached at email@example.com.