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Back to the Drawing Board: Harvard's Men's Lacrosse Squad Struggles to Find Success

Sophomore attacker Sam King tussles with a Boston University player in Harvard's battle against the Terriers on March 21, when the Crimson lost 15-11. King leads the team in the number of goals scored at 20.
Sophomore attacker Sam King tussles with a Boston University player in Harvard's battle against the Terriers on March 21, when the Crimson lost 15-11. King leads the team in the number of goals scored at 20. By Dylan J. Goodman
By Katharine Forst, Crimson Staff Writer

BOSTON, MASS. — The Harvard men's lacrosse team suffered two losses this past week: the first to Charles River rival Boston University and the second to Ivy League compatriot Dartmouth. Both games were monumental for the record book as the win on Tuesday marked BU’s first upset over the Crimson since 2017 and the win on Saturday marked Dartmouth’s first victory in the Ivy League since 2015; the game broke a 35-game drought for the Big Green within the competitive league.

There were similarities between the two games, mainly with the Crimson offense having trouble finding the back of the cage. Sophomore middies Owen Gaffney and Andrew Perry were markedly absent from the scoresheet, Perry tallying one goal on the week, and Gaffney finding himself as a facilitator on the feeds with 2 assists and a goal against BU. Gaffney has stepped up in this role and has looked confident in moving the ball quickly and effectively in the sets. Ball movement looked strong and decisive on the attacking end, with good looks and feeds inside that just didn’t connect for a goal. Unable to build momentum with these possessions, the offense had a hard time breaking ground and creating secure leads. First-year attacker Teddy Malone was a bright spot in this plight during the Dartmouth game, scoring the first four goals for Harvard.

Another area in which the team looked a lot more successful was in the ride and the middle of the field. This improvement is due to better ball movement, awareness of the changing shifts coming in from the box getting open, and junior goalie Christian Barnard getting the ball out of the crease quickly and cleanly. Barnard tallied his second goal of the season in the BU game, showcasing his lacrosse IQ in taking advantage of the ten-man ride which took the BU goalie out of his cage, leaving it open for a full-field Hail Mary attempt.

This idea of lacrosse IQ was apparent in the ride, with the Crimson appearing more aggressive and physical than it had all season. The slides were crashing to make contact and the attackers berated the defense until the thirty, securing the ball and extending possession times for the attacking unit.

“We have been working on improving the pressure of our ride to force rushed decisions out of our opponents, which is something we had a lot of success with against Dartmouth last year and something we hope to bring back,” senior defensive-middie Chase Yager said.

The offense was able to successfully cause these turnovers because the defense was heads-up at locking off opposing attackers and middies down low. Yager, as well as first-year defenseman Charlie Muller and sophomore defenseman Martin Nelson, were particularly cognizant during these periods and were able to make heads-up plays that won the ball back for the Crimson.

“I think the team has continued to perform well clearing the ball and giving the offense opportunities to work,” Yager noted. “Our faceoff unit fought hard and won us some key faceoffs at important moments in the game, but I think we need to continue to execute when we start to get momentum.”

First-year attacker Sam King worked well with Malone and senior attacker Hayden Cheek on the offensive sets. There was a lot of rotation of players during the Dartmouth game, with first-year middie Logan Ip and junior middie Mark Stephens cracking the lines. There was also a personnel change between the two contests with sophomore FOGO Andrew DeGennaro taking a majority of the reps during the BU game and first-year Matt Barraco stepping in against Dartmouth. The faceoff continues to be an area in which the team needs to improve in order to successfully capitalize on momentum from defensive stops and goals on attack. Without the ball, the team could not find a rhythm, and was consistently forced to fight hard for the ball off the draw.

In the sense of lacrosse being a game of possession, the team had moments of greatness and moments of weakness. The squad has shown throughout the season that it struggles with stringing together four consistent quarters of lacrosse. The Dartmouth game proved this, with Harvard pulling away a four-goal lead into the fourth quarter, only to ease up on the momentum and give room for the Big Green to find lapses in attention that allowed their players to score and ultimately win in overtime. The Crimson offense didn't score for the last nineteen minutes of play, including the extra time allotted for overtime.

“It was a tough game for us,” King started. “We struggled in six-v-six offense all game and allowed Dartmouth to get back into the game — we’re super frustrated but understand what we’re capable of.”

Members of the Harvard men's lacrosse squad huddle at its game against Boston University in Boston, Mass. The Crimson will next travel to Hamilton, N.Y. to play Colgate University on Saturday at 1:00 p.m. EST.
Members of the Harvard men's lacrosse squad huddle at its game against Boston University in Boston, Mass. The Crimson will next travel to Hamilton, N.Y. to play Colgate University on Saturday at 1:00 p.m. EST. By Dylan J. Goodman

Against the Terriers, the Crimson did not seem to have control of the ball. The team came out slow and sluggish and was playing catchup; it failed to take a lead on the scoreboard, and despite having a run at the end of the game, could not make up the ground it had ceded. To be effective in the competitive league, Harvard’s squad must discover a way to string possessions together to create dynamic opportunities for success.

“I think that we played well on both sides of the ball at different times. In the first half their goalie was making a lot of saves, but our defense was playing great. Then in the second half when we started to score, we started to let up on defense. So I think we really just need to focus on trying to put it together. We know we have the talent and everything we need, but it’s just a matter of showing it,” noted Barnard following the BU game.

On the defensive end, communication is an area the Crimson will harp on in practice before the game against Colgate this weekend. The one-on-one coverage seemed stronger in both of the games, but there were still gaps created by late recovery slides when sending the double to the dodging player, giving BU and Dartmouth the chance to attack the middle of the fan. Because the one-on-one looked much more solid in these games, the slide came late a few times — especially against BU — which caused the rotations to also delay and create opportunities for the opposing team. An example of this was in the first quarter when Yager successfully played one-on-one against his attacker for almost a full thirty seconds behind the cage before the slide was sent; the play ended in a Terrier goal because the slide was late to crash and the BU player was able to re-dodge and get a step on Yager topside. Against Dartmouth, the defense got caught ball-watching a few times which allowed the Big Green to feed the inside and put pressure on Barnard to make clutch saves in big moments.

“Looking to the next game we’re going to really focus on improving our defensive communication to help with slide decisions to avoid some of the one-on-one goals we let in,” noted Yager.

After this weekend, the team will have no out-of-conference play scheduled. Every game will be critical in clinching a place as one of the four best Ancient Eight teams in the hopes of making it to the Ivy Tournament. The Crimson squad takes the field against Colgate up in Hamilton, N.Y. on Saturday at 1:00 p.m. EST. The game will also be streamed live on ESPN+.

— Staff writer Katharine Forst can be reached at katharine.forst@thecrimson.com.

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