Some Harvard students devote most of their time to studies, others spend hours split between the classroom and the field, while others begin their morning in one jersey and end their day in another. Well, just one: graduating senior and women’s basketball captain Maggie McCarthy.
In a college experience defined by waking up near dawn for lacrosse practice, heading back across the river for class, rushing to the dining hall for to-go dinner, and racing back to Lavietes Pavilion for basketball practice, McCarthy’s two-sport life will soon come to an end.
“I tell my friends, jokingly, they never saw me semester-time at Harvard,” she laughed.
The Medfield, Mass. native was initially recruited to Harvard for basketball, a program to which she has made immense contributions and which made program history this year by making it to the Great Eight of the NCAA’s WNIT. Her high school experience was shaped by the routine of sports and schoolwork, something she wanted to continue this regimen through college athletics.
McCarthy’s parents and her two older brothers are graduates of Amherst College, a Division III school, and somewhere she always thought she would attend. That was until her freshman year of high school at Medfield — where she was playing soccer, basketball, and lacrosse — Harvard reached out to her, though she wasn’t completely sold on the Ivy League.
“I just loved Amherst and thought I was going to follow in my family's footsteps,” she recounted.
But what ultimately gave Harvard the green light was her conversations with the legendary Harvard basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith.
“As they kept talking to me, and I kept trying to make the right decision, ultimately, it was Kathy Delaney-Smith, who was the basketball coach at the time.”
Delaney-Smith — a 40-year veteran of the Harvard basketball program — racked up 630 victories, eleven Ivy League championship victories, and six NCAA tournament appearances during her time as head coach. Though she retired last year, new head coach Carrie Moore has not disappointed in her first season at the helm.
It was strong and talented powerhouses in the field of collegiate athletics — in addition to world-renowned academics and opportunities like no other — that locked in McCarthy’s decision to play at Harvard, a common sentiment shared by many Ivy League athletes.
“That's why I made the decision,” she said. “I wanted to be surrounded by great and impressive people all the time, especially the female role models like Kathy, and then Devon [Wills], the lacrosse coach now.”
In the 2018-19 season, her freshman year with the Crimson, McCarthy only played on the basketball team. But after basketball season finished, something was missing: her natural routine of practice, school, eat, practice, repeat. So, McCarthy followed her gut and walked on to the women’s lacrosse team her sophomore fall in 2019.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic stripped McCarthy of what would have been her first year in college playing two sports, let alone halting the women’s basketball team's 2020 playoff run. She then took a gap year in 2020-21, making the long-awaited 2021-22 season — the Ivy League’s official return to collegiate athletic competition — her first time playing in games for both basketball and lacrosse.
“Sophomore year, I was following my instinct — and I'm so glad that I did.”
The captain has since split her time between the two sports, which requires her to plan her weeks according to how many hours the NCAA allows her to practice and play for even multi-sport athletes, which is 20 hours per week.
“If you just look on paper, I don't even know how many hours I've spent over the river. So much of my experience [at Harvard], I'm learning in class a lot,” McCarthy said. “But the number of hours of the day [I spend at] basketball, I'd be there for like five hours, [and] in lacrosse would be like two hours in the same day because I would go to lacrosse in the mornings to watch even if I couldn't play and [then] go to basketball.”
The two teams are very different: while basketball has nearly thirteen active players, women’s lacrosse has over thirty names on the roster. This year, as captain of women’s basketball, McCarthy had to balance the dynamic of leading one squad and then switching to another with more voices, and different captains, but with the same senior status.
Last year, she worked her way up into the starting lineup for lacrosse, currently making her a starting player for both teams. The avid athlete heads into each new lacrosse season fresh off a playoff mindset from basketball, an experience she tries to share with the lacrosse team.
“Going through a whole long season with basketball, where it's a smaller team, you're getting to know like the ins and outs of every player and kind of how teams work, and the ups and downs of the season,” McCarthy reflected. “Being able to bring what I learned from my basketball season to lacrosse, especially [since] I would have just gone through playoffs — how that is, and the heat of that — and coming into lacrosse where they haven't quite reached that point yet.”
This switch wasn’t the easiest to pick up on, however. Some of the sliding and movement skills between basketball and lacrosse are pretty transferable, but the one hump McCarthy had to get over was the stick skills. She turned to a simple practice familiar to many athletes that only requires three things: a stick, a ball, and a wall.
“Junior year, I hadn't picked up a stick since like, senior year of high school. So I was like, ‘Okay, gotta get the wall ball,’” she remembered. “I remember during J-term, winter term, we're here for basketball. I would get a stick on the wall.”
“I think I did it outside of Winthrop [House] one time and it was hitting someone’s room, and they came out and were like ‘Can you stop?’” the senior captain joked.
Though this year might have been smoother since she had a year of playing both sports under her belt, an unforeseen challenge presented itself to McCarthy during the start of her basketball season: injury. It was the first time she had been truly injured during sports.
In November, during an 85-63 loss to Purdue at the team’s Cancun Challenge in Mexico, the captain fractured her foot in an unlucky play while stepping on an opponent’s foot when changing directions, though she played on the fracture for the remainder of the game. The stint put her on the bench for the remainder of December.
Shortly after returning in January, McCarthy injured her wrist during a 66-53 win over Cornell. In an attempt to draw a charge on defense, a Big Red player knocked McCarthy down to the court, forcing her to use her wrist to break the fall. Despite the break, she wrapped it up and returned to play the remainder of the game somewhat one-handed.
This was the first time McCarthy had been truly out of competition. This time, it forced her to step back and reflect on how deep her love for sports ran.
“I remember having a conversation with my brother and my mom, and I was like, ‘I just love competing and love sports,’” she said. “I can't imagine my life or my future without [them]. That’s why I decided to apply to graduate school.”
After working with the NCAA Eligibility Center, McCarthy discovered she had a fifth year of eligibility to use due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Massachusetts native will take her talents to the women’s lacrosse program at Duke University.
One dream McCarthy had — shared by her teammates and coaches in the women’s basketball program this season — was to win the Ivy League title. With a 20-12 overall record, supported by a 9-5 conference record, and a great deal of agility built from bouncing back from consistent injuries, the team’s chances appeared very strong.
In a devastating six-point loss to the Princeton Tigers, the Crimson couldn’t pull it off, granting Princeton its fourth Ivy title and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
“Losing the Ivy championship this year was terrible,” McCarthy reflected. “We had success, high hopes.”
The silver lining, however, was the way her team came together after the loss.
“I remember I had a tougher time than I ever had losing a game,” she remembered. “Usually, I feel like I can get over it pretty quickly because you can move on, but I think it was also [because of] being a senior.”
“Everybody was upset, but like the way we came together as a team, I realized [that] a game is a game, that’s something out of our control,” she continued. “But just focusing on what I can control and what has been so valuable to me over the years, it was the funny memories that we made, even after losing together as a team. Going on that run in the WNIT that we had this year in the playoffs. That kind of gave us the perspective to give it all you have in every game.”
McCarthy will take this new, optimistic perspective not only to her new team in North Carolina, but the rest of her life — a sentiment and experience that forms many collegiate student-athletes, especially the ones here at Harvard, who spend much of their time on both sides of the Charles River.
“[The] learning experiences and relationships and memories built across the river are invaluable.”