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Sometimes, history has a way of repeating itself. Two years after making its deepest run in the NCAA tournament yet, No. 9 Harvard field hockey has found itself in a similar situation with a bid from the Ivy League and a November weekend plane ticket to some top-ranked school. But the Crimson only punched this ticket after the installation of the Ivy League’s new four-team, post-season tournament — of which it stands as the inaugural champions.
In previous years, Harvard could enter the tournament in two ways: with an Ivy League title or an at-large bid based on record, rigor of competition, and an array of other factors. The conference introduced a post-regular-season tournament with the four top Ivy teams, with the victor receiving an NCAA bid. Harvard won it for the first time ever at home on Berylson Field this past Sunday afternoon.
“We get the first inaugural Ivy tournament championships, and that will forever be at Harvard,” reflected field hockey head coach Tjerk van Herwaarden.
While Harvard has racked up an excellent resume this year — from beating four ranked opponents to tight overtime losses to schools like No. 3 Duke — van Herwaarden believes the team’s improvement this year comes from a myriad of little steps forward.
Reflecting on games against familiar foe St. Joseph’s University, for instance, he noted, “When you look at just the results from this year, compared to last year, it was just a close 1-0 loss — this year, it's a 1-0 win. I think those small differences, definitely having more attacking power, generated the overall resume that we have this year where we came up a little bit short last year last season.”
The Crimson’s 2023 schedule has prepared it for the caliber of NCAA tournament teams it may face this time around. Though it automatically qualified after winning the Ivy tournament, it put itself in a good position to get an at-large bid by meeting the level of competition these top-15 teams bring.
“It's a ‘you win, or you go home’ kind of mentality. And I think that it's a type of style that our team can very well deal with,” van Herwaarden said.
In the past, what first came to mind when thinking of Harvard field hockey was its defense. Hailed as one of the strongest defensive teams in the nation — and having the top-ranked goalkeeper, Ellie Shahbo ‘22 — it made a name for itself by shutting out 10 of 19 teams it faced in 2021. Any goals scored by the Crimson were usually dispersed between two to three players. But this season, the Crimson has reshaped its offensive strategy — and it has had tangible results.
In 2022, Harvard scored a total of 33 goals. Just this year, it's already at 49. What more, these goals are spread across several different players, younger and more-experienced alike.
“I think this year we've been doing so much work to connect from our defense through to the midfield up to the forwards — it’s resulted in a load of goals,” said junior captain and midfielder Emily Guckian.
“Our bread and butter over the last couple of years has been our defense and how difficult it is to score goals against us,” added the head coach, such that in the tournament, “it's going to be the combination between those two where we, you know, maybe find a goal twice or three times and just make sure that they hit our goal one time less than that we find theirs.”
Heading into its first tournament game against No. 6 Rutgers University, Harvard is trying to stay focused on itself and how to capitalize on its own strengths, such as how difficult it is to score in the Crimson’s net.
“I think the defense and limiting opportunities to our goal has been one of our key strengths. And I do think that can go well in NCAA play,” van Herwaarden commented.
This season, Rutgers has responded to the high demand of its schedule. After beating several teams like No. 4 Maryland, No. 15 Penn State, and No. 16 Michigan, it will make its fifth-ever tournament. Similar to Harvard, it last made an appearance in 2021, where it lost to runner-up Liberty University in the second round.
“When you look at Rutgers, they're not a high-powered scoring team, but they do find the net in every single game that they play,” van Herwaarden said. “So I think they certainly have the possibilities and quality to score goals.”
“Rutgers is a very strong Big 10 opponent. Big 10 is well known for solid hockey, but also powerful hockey — fast, physically strong people. And I think that's something that we definitely need to prepare for,” he added.
Harvard will head south to Chapel Hill, N.C. for the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday, Nov. 10 against Rutgers at 2:30 p.m. EST. The victor of the matchup will go on to face the winner of the North Carolina-William & Mary game on Sunday, Nov. 12 at 12:00 p.m. EST. Both games will be streamed on ESPN+.
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