Senior Avery Donahue gathers the ball in a game against Delaware.

A New Era: How Harvard Field Hockey Went from No. 60 to No. 6 in 10 Years

By Mairead B. Baker, Crimson Staff Writer
Senior Avery Donahue gathers the ball in a game against Delaware. By Dylan J. Goodman

On a gloomy Friday afternoon in November 2021, then-No. 12 Harvard field hockey took to the field in Ann Arbor, Mich. for a gritty battle against Northwestern in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. The Crimson was fresh off two exhilarating overtime wins against No. 6 Louisville and No. 2 Michigan. At that point, Harvard had surpassed its record of reaching the quarterfinals in 2018.

Despite fighting tooth-and-nail, the Wildcats managed to edge a penalty corner in double overtime, ending Harvard’s historic season. Northwestern went on to win the tournament in a 2-0 victory over top-scoring offense Liberty.

Flashing backward 11 years, Harvard went 3-14 in its 2010 season — and a tough 1-6 in the Ivy conference — a record that might seem unthinkable for current Crimson jersey-holders. It was the sixth consecutive season that Harvard failed to win at least half of its games dating back to 2004, resulting in a whopping No. 64 rank among Division I teams.

In just a decade, Harvard field hockey improved its ranking by tenfold, soaring from No. 64 to sixth in the nation. This is no small feat. Like professional sports teams, it can sometimes take decades, or more, to break a losing cycle and build a team up to the championship level.

“I think 2014 or 2015, we had our first winning record,” said Head Coach Tjerk van Herwaarden. “That really gave us hope, because we were slowly increasing our strength of schedule.”

In 2012, van Herwaarden’s first season as Head Coach for Harvard, the Crimson went 3-13 overall. It was a season characterized by injuries and unlucky Ivy contests, putting up only 18 goals on the board the entire season. 2013 marked a notable shift in the team’s performance, achieving an 8-9 record. Despite ending with more losses than wins, it marked considerable improvement, with the Crimson more than doubling its goal count to 37 total.

Harvard’s strength only increased from there. In 2014, the Crimson went 10-7, its first winning season since 2004. It saw one ranked opponent — No. 11 Boston College — and put three Ivy wins under its belt.

Yet, 2016 marked one of the biggest victories for Harvard: a breakthrough year when it beat eleventh-ranked and archrival Princeton for the first time in over a decade.

In recent memory, the Ivy League title has shifted back and forth between Princeton and Harvard. A rivalry familiar to other sports at Harvard — football, swimming and diving, and water polo, to name a few — there is arguably a deeper hatred and hunger to beat Princeton than even Yale.

In the past, part of this intense competitiveness between Harvard and Princeton was because an Ivy title did not necessarily include an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but was determined based on rigor of schedule and statistics, among other factors. Just last year, the conference introduced an inaugural postseason tournament among the four top Ivy teams whose victor earned the automatic spot. Harvard punched that ticket.

“I remember my freshman year, [Princeton] was one of the only Ivy League games that was very competitive, to where the standard was kind of equally matched,” said former team captain and All-America Second Team goalie Ellie Shahbo ʼ22.

“[Harvard] started winning enough games to where the only team it started losing to was Princeton,” Shahbo added.

The rivalry with Princeton became more entrenched over time as Harvard steadily matched the competitiveness of the Tigers. Put together, it appears that Harvard’s rapid ascent from 2012 to 2021 can be attributed to van Herwaarden’s clever recruiting strategy, an improving team culture, an effective balance between academics and athletics, and simply winning more games.

“Once the team started to win, the girls that were older started to show us, ‘This is where we were and this is where we are now,’” Shahbo said. “That potential and possibility increase the intensity that the team trained and worked at, which I think was also helped by Tjerk pushing the team in that direction as well.”

Looking at just the numbers, Harvard began to win more indeed. After winning only three games in van Herwaarden’s first season in 2012, the Crimson had a 0.75 winning percentage in 2023 and went undefeated in the Ivy League.

Harvard gained confidence with each gradual win, building its record and ranking each year. But Harvard was not just winning, it was also bringing in a stronger recruit class.

“I hate losing and I wanted to set a different culture, and I felt it was necessary to get my own recruits in,” van Herwaarden said.

One of van Herwaarden’s clever recruiting strategies is bringing in athletes from corners of the world where field hockey is played differently, making his team diverse in skill and strength.

“We have people that come from across the globe, and there's different styles with field hockey played everywhere, like England is different from America, which is different from Australia, which is different from the Netherlands. [Tjerk] pulls the skills out of girls on the team to help create this very cohesive gameplay strategy,” Shahbo added.

In addition to being an All-American, Shahbo was also the No. 1 defensive goalie in Division-I field hockey and the winningest goalkeeper in Harvard program history. When she was recruited, she had offers from top field hockey programs — even the reigning NCAA champions, UNC. Yet, she ultimately chose Harvard for its momentous potential and the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than herself.

“What was really cool about Harvard was there was a lot of potential and opportunity,” Shahbo said. “I think Tjerk’s vision for the program is what really sold me and he was really looking to recruit people that had the same vision as him. It was kind of a no-brainer for me, in that sense.”

According to Shahbo, the key to van Herwaarden’s vision for Harvard was consistency: not just winning the Ivy League this year, but every year, and to make regular appearances in the NCAA tournament — something the program has gone on to do consistently in his time as coach.

“Tjerk has always been a big proponent of protecting the culture of the team. And that's something that is top of mind for him when new people are coming in, whether they'll kind of contribute and add to that team environment. I think it goes hand in hand with our team being so successful in the last few years,” Shahbo said.

Van Herwaarden emphasized that Harvard’s rapid success over the past decade isn’t to be attributed to a particular incoming class or athlete, but in developing a culture that draws champions.

“A lot of the girls that were seniors when I was a freshman left a legacy of pushing the program forward,” Shahbo said. “It's the incremental baby steps that those girls took in that era before I got there that really pushed the program and set the tone for moving forward.”

Whether it's studying on buses together on the road to an away game or waking up early to complete an assignment before morning practice, van Herwaarden has also made an effort to support his athletes in their academic endeavors within the rigorous Harvard curriculum. He believes that it's a critical component of the team’s success. In the preseason, the team’s goals are always, firstly, winning an Ivy title and making an NCAA appearance, and secondly, to achieve a commendable team GPA. As a signal of its success in that regard, the Crimson recently placed fifth in the National Team Academic Award.

Looking forward to the 2024 season, there is an important matter van Herwaarden and his team must check off first: celebrating the Harvard field hockey program’s 50th anniversary as a varsity sport at the College.

“Harvard field hockey exists 50 years next year as a varsity program at Harvard,” the Head Coach said. “So that's the first thing that we're gonna look forward to and then celebrate.”

After celebrating, the team still has some work to do. But what makes it different now than a decade ago, or even just a few years ago, is the program is nearly at its peak. Harvard has consistently ranked as a top-10 or top-15 program in Division-I field hockey, making the incremental steps of improvement it saw during van Herwaarden’s early years more difficult to achieve.

“I think it really comes down to the little things like the margins and margins of error, and how you can differentiate yourself from a team that is pretty much equally matched,” Shahbo said.

“It's the touches on the ball, it's having certain people have a yard in a different direction and a different position, and I think fine-tuning those things is going to be the biggest challenge,” she added.

As the old saying goes: to whom much is given, more will be expected. Harvard is at a point where excelling comes from a smaller margin than before. Its team goals, though not as far-reaching as in years past, are more about fine-tuning, which is arguably even more difficult to achieve. The pressure is on.
— Staff writer Mairead B. Baker can be reached at Follow her on X @baker_mairead.

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