If the last three years are any indication, Saturday’s women’s lacrosse match between Harvard and Yale is going to come down to the wire. In each of the last three years, the Elis have beaten their archrivals, but each time by only the slimmest of margins — one goal.
If, however, the new winning attitude of the 2002 version of the Bulldogs prevails at the 1 p.m. game at Johnson Field tomorrow afternoon, it could be a Yale cakewalk.
“Personally, as a junior, we have gone against Harvard and made it the traditional Yale-Harvard rivalry and have come away with two one goal victories,” attack Sarah Queener ’03 said. “This year, I want to go in and kick their butt.”
While that comment might not sit well with the Crimson, it is indicative of a new resolve to win that the team subscribes to this year more than it has in the past. The Bulldogs (5-1) have demonstrated the effects of this revamped desire in their current four game winning streak as the confidence of the Yale players and their belief in themselves has grown unchecked.
“In past years, we have been content to win the games that we are ‘supposed’ to win and lose the games we are ‘supposed’ to lose,” goalie C.K. Barber ’02 said. “We talked about striving for higher goals, but I don’t think we believed in it. This year, we believe in ourselves.”
For a talent-filled program that has flirted with greatness in the past, it is their belief in themselves that may be the difference between winning an Ivy League championship and gaining an NCAA tournament berth, or another year of falling just short.
Ranked 13th in the nation and riding a four-game winning streak, including a 9-6 win at traditional Ivy power Dartmouth, it is no surprise the Elis are riding a high of confidence and optimism. But for the veteran players on the team, they are conscious that a fast start to the season does not always translate into success come season’s end.
Last year, Yale started the season on an eight game winning streak, including a 13-7 win over a tough Dartmouth team. The Bulldogs were 9-1 on April 11, but a late season swoon saw the team lose five of its final six games — falling short of an Ivy League championship and an NCAA berth.
“We have a totally different team — I don’t think about that,” said head coach Amanda O’Leary of last year’s collapse. “[This year] we are not afraid to put it all on the line. Last year, we were hesitant.”
To back up her claim, O’Leary points to Wednesday’s 11-9 victory at Boston University.
BU was as aggressive as any team Yale has faced this year and the Elis did not play at their best, but when the Terriers pulled to within one goal, 10-9, with eight minutes left, the Bulldogs put the clamps on the Terrier attack and added an insurance goal in the final minute to seal the victory.
“Those kinds of games last year, we would have lost,” captain Megan Strenski ’02 said.
The difference in part stems from a new leadership dynamic on the team. The team’s only two seniors, Strenski, one of the Ivy League’s best defensemen, and goalkeeper Barber, anchor the Yale defense. That means the Yale midfield and attack, a mixture of underclassmen, must rely on themselves for leadership on the field.
“Last year, with five seniors, there was an expectation that you were playing for the seniors,” said Miles Whitman ’04, the team’s leading goal-scorer. “This team is so young, that the motivation is coming from each and everyone of us.”
It also helps that the entire Yale offense poses a threat for opposing teams. Whitman leads the team with 15 goals, followed by 12 each from Clarissa Clarke ’03 and Sophie Melniker ’04, and nine from Queener. A pair of freshmen, Sarah Driscoll ’05 and Katie Sargent ’05, have also turned into multiple goal games for the Elis.
Strenski leads the way on defense, aided by second-year starter Jen Kessel ’04. Amanda Laws ’03 splits time in goal with Barber, who took a one-year hiatus from the team last year. The duo forms a goalie-by-committee system, with each week’s practice determining who will start come game time. O’Leary said she announces her starter in pre-game warm-ups.
Barber said the friendly competition pushes the two to strive harder, something that she sees happening in the team as a whole.
“I have really seen how much the underclassmen have grown, how they have really stepped up into leadership roles on offense,” Barber said. “It’s measured in how hard people go for ground balls, how many double teams you run out of, how much hustle and heart you have.”
For the Bulldogs lacrosse program, the talent to win at the highest level has been there. Maybe now it’s just a question of hustle and heart.