PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Four seniors huddled together, fighting off the waves of emotions crashing in on a night littered with sporadic rain and eventual heartbreak.
The loss to Brown seemed a fitting end for a season of unfulfilled expectations and might-have-beens as Yale once again fell in double overtime.
For captain and forward Emma Whitfield ’09, defender Natalia Mann ’09, midfielder Maggie Westfal ’09 and defender Hayley Zevenbergen ’09, the end of their playing careers at Yale (8-7-2, 2-4-1) has barely begun to register.
“It still doesn’t feel like it’s over — people have been asking us how it feels and we’ve always said we’ve still got one more game,” Whitfield said. “It still feels like we’re in the season and it’s going to be incredibly weird when we don’t have to go to practice on Tuesday for the first time since we were five or six.”
Zevenbergen echoed those same sentiments on the long bus ride back from Brown (7-6-4, 3-3-1 Ivy).
“I still haven’t accepted it yet,” she said. “I’m in a state of denial.”
Mann, a soft-spoken defender who plays each and every game with an unrivaled intensity, was pensive when asked about her career.
“The highlight for us was winning the Ivy championship in our freshman year,” she said. “Since then, it’s been a difficult road to stay at the top. At the end of the day though, the whole experience was about the team. We’re a family and it’s been a great four years.”
Westfal is the only senior who will have another season with a Yale team — she’s a member of the women’s hockey squad — but she said she will still fondly miss her experiences with soccer.
“We were talking at the pre-game dinner about things that we’d miss and things we wouldn’t miss,” she said. “I won’t miss the feeling right after our fitness test, when you just want to double over and throw up. But at the same time, you miss that feeling of competing — not just for yourself, but for the whole team.”
Competing for the whole team is something that the Elis have done consistently this season. Even though the Bulldogs finished seventh in the league — a far cry from the preseason polls that listed them as favorites for the Ivy title — their losses have been characterized by dominant play that the scoreboard simply doesn’t reflect. A team-oriented style that preaches patience and methodical passes to dominate possession and set up scoring opportunities has been present in almost every game from the beginning of the season to the end.
In every Ivy League loss and tie, except for the game against Harvard, Yale outshot its opponents, earned more corner kicks and free kicks than its opponents and possessed the ball more than its opponents. Usually, a late goal or a bad break cost the Elis a win.
Against Brown on Saturday night, it was no different. The Bulldogs jumped out to a quick 1-0 lead when Becky Brown’s ’11 shot from 25 yards out blasted past the keeper’s fingertips and into the net. Throughout the rest of the first half, Yale continued to pressure the Bears and had many more opportunities to score. With 1:50 left in the half, Zevenbergen blasted a shot from point blank range, but it was miraculously saved by the Bears’ keeper, Brenna Hogue. Then a long injury time-out was called because Hogue severely injured her elbow on the play.
The time out and subsequent half-time break seemed to sap some rhythm out of the Elis as play in the second half became more back-and-forth. Even so, Becky Brown had another chance to score an insurance goal when Westfal delivered a perfect pass after drawing out Brown’s backup keeper. Facing an empty net, the Yale forward seemed to slip a little on the slick grass and consequently boomed the shot above the crossbar.
With five minutes left and Yale clinging to the single-goal lead, the Bears finally mustered an effective counterattack when Sylvia Stone headed in a high-arching cross to tie the game up at one apiece.
Overtime resulted in more back-and-forth play as a sudden flash of rain poured over the field. With everything on the line, the two teams — who were tied in the Ivy League standings — battled through the first overtime and into a second. Finally, it was Stone who, scoring again in the waning minutes of a period, ended Yale’s season and brought the seniors together in a huddle before post-game handshakes.
It’s been a tough season for the Bulldogs, and hardly a storybook ending for a group of seniors who won the Ivy league championship in their freshman year. But head coach Rudy Meredith held himself accountable for the season’s disappointments.
“If you told me that we were going to be seventh before this season, I would’ve bet my house against you,” he said. “I’d probably be homeless now, and maybe I deserve it. We are an extremely talented squad and as the coach, I’m going to take full responsibility for this season because we definitely underachieved.”
It’s not often that the coach takes full responsibility for a team’s failures over a season, but it’s simply another testament to the togetherness of the team. Before every game, the women trot out in their warm-up T-shirts emblazoned with “Ubuntu” and “Glory” on the front. On the back, there is a Swedish phrase that translates to “30 pencils are stronger than one.”
The Swedish phrase came from a team-building exercise that Meredith had the women do before the season. He made various players try to break a single pencil in half before putting 30 pencils together and asking them to do the same. The conclusion, of course, was that 30 pencils together are stronger than one and therefore harder to break. These various team-building exercises and mottos aren’t simply just words or activities, but virtues that the team lived by throughout the winding course of this season.
On the ride back from Providence, the mood in the bus was somber, yet still surprisingly cheerful. This season might not have turned out the way the Bulldogs wanted, but the team had still had its last few hours together as one. At the end of the day, the 30 pencils won’t break so easily.