Two long days after Harvard completed its regular season with a win at Columbia, the Crimson can finally exhale. On Monday afternoon, Harvard (12-2-1, 5-2-0 Ivy League) learned that it earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, where it will join Ancient Eight rivals Brown and Princeton. The Crimson will travel to face Wake Forest (15-5-0, 7-5-0 ACC) in Winston-Salem on Sunday at 1 p.m.
“There are few better feelings as a college athlete or coach than seeing your name called on Selection Monday,” head coach Chris Hamblin said. “It was great to be in a room together with the team and the team behind the team — our administrators and support staff — to be able to enjoy that moment. It was pretty special.”
While Harvard remained in the top-20 of the NCAA’s rating percentage index (RPI) throughout the season, its inclusion in the field of 64 teams was by no means a foregone conclusion. No Ivy League school had earned an at-large bid to the tournament since Dartmouth in 2005, and the Crimson was behind not only automatic qualifier Brown but also at-large candidate Princeton in the pecking order. In the end, all three schools made it, taking the sting out of Harvard’s 1-0 home losses to the Bears and Tigers and giving the conference its first three-bid season since 2004.
“It’s such a credit to the league and to the programs within the league,” Hamblin said. “Especially when you think about the fact that none of the Ivy League teams had a season last year. That we’ve been able to come back and not only hit the ground running but really have a ton of success just goes to show the direction the league is going in. For all of us in the league it’s an incredible achievement. We’re all lifting each other up, and I’m hoping that this is going to set a new precedent that the Ivy League is going to have more than one entry into the NCAA Tournament for years to come.”
The Crimson’s resume was bolstered by its undefeated record against a competitive non-conference schedule that featured schools from the ACC, Big 12, and Big East, as well as MAAC champions Monmouth, whose 43rd rank in the RPI made the Hawks the best team Harvard defeated. Beyond its impressive record and wealth of decent victories, the Crimson outshot and out-possessed its opponent in every game this season, and usually did so by a wide margin: Harvard managed double-digit shots in all 15 of its games and conceded more than nine shots just twice, against Kansas and Dartmouth. On the season, the Crimson outshot its opponents by a per-game margin of about 19-8.
Harvard dropped the two biggest games of its regular season, though, and will have to show that it is ready to win tight, tense games like the battle in Winston-Salem seems sure to be. While the Demon Deacons were picked to finish just ninth in the brutally difficult ACC, they followed up a cream puff non-conference slate with a strong ACC regular season performance, finishing tied for sixth with perennial powerhouse North Carolina. Wake Forest then upset Duke — a top seed in the NCAA tournament — in the first round of the ACC tournament before falling in the semifinals in overtime to Florida State, the top overall seed and consensus top team in America.
“They have been playing incredibly well of late,” Hamblin said. “They’ve been tested and have performed against some of the best teams in the country. But that’s why we do this. We want to put ourselves on the national stage and see where we’re at. We both like to play possession style soccer and it’s a beautiful big field down there, so I think you’re going to see two teams going after it.”
The Demon Deacons enter the game freshly ranked by the coaches’ poll last week, and while by RPI they — at 27th — are actually marginal underdogs, the Crimson knows that it is in for a tough game in which the margins will be very slim. Wake Forest’s sophomore goalie Kaitlyn Parks has eight shutouts on the season, tied for most in the powerhouse ACC, which produced nine tournament teams and three of the four top seeds.
The winner of this finely poised matchup will likely face Michigan, the second seed in Florida State’s region. A win would send Harvard past the first round of the tournament for the first time since 2014, when the Crimson thrashed Central Connecticut 6-0 before falling 7-0 to first seed UCLA in the second round.
— Staff writer Lev Cohen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LevTHC.