With just a single loss over the course of 16 games, a perfect 7-0 Ivy League record, and the best team goals-against average in the nation (0.42), the Harvard field hockey team has earned a spot in the 2021 Division I NCAA tournament.
The No. 12 Crimson finished off its regular season with a decisive 4-0 win over Brown last weekend, clinching the outright Ivy League title. The victory marks Harvard’s third league title in the last five years. Harvard will carry a 10-game winning streak into the first round of the tournament, back-stopped by a dominant defense.
“I think our defense has really stepped up and has proven to be an extraordinary quality,” said Harvard head coach Tjerk van Herwaarden, who was recently named the Ivy League Coach of the Year. “Defense has been phenomenal for us, and that is something that we look to bring into the NCAAs.”
Centering the defense is junior goalkeeper Ellie Shahbo, who deflected three shots on goal during the win over Brown and secured the top save percentage in Division I field hockey at 0.857. Offensively, the Crimson is fifth in the nation in assists per game. Senior captain and back Hannah Pearce, who was named the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, led the team this season with 13 goals and two assists.
Harvard will come off its nearly perfect season ride (15-1, 7-0 Ivy) to take on a new challenge: the NCAA tournament. But the D-I tournament is not uncharted territory for the Crimson.
In 2018, the then-No. 6 field hockey team made it to the quarterfinal round of the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history — an effort marked by an aggressive mentality and resilience. However, with 2018 three years in the past and a 21-month hiatus leading into this season, a different team and a different mindset will be on the field in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Friday.
“We are an entirely new Harvard,” van Herwaarden said. “We have had a different season, different strengths, and different difficulties.”
This year, the NCAA tournament features 18 teams from different conferences throughout the nation: Big Ten, Big East, and the ACC, to name a few. Harvard remains the only team from the Ivy League to clinch a spot in the tournament.
“I think we take it game by game,” van Herwaarden reflected. “We are not comparing ourselves to any other team that has done well in the past. We are making sure we utilize our strengths and see how we have to deal with [their] strengths and be able to compete with them.”
There is one team in the tournament that Harvard faced earlier this season, the University of Delaware. The Crimson beat Delaware 2-0 back in September. Delaware recently beat out Fairfield University for a spot against No. 1 Rutgers in the opening round of the tournament.
“I think when you look at the records and the scores of this past season, it’s going to be anyone’s game,” observed the Ivy coach of the year. “This championship is very much undecided — it’s anyone’s game.”
“But it’s also going to come down to which form might be best on any given game day,” he continued. “For us as coaches, it’s our job to make sure our athletes have to step up when it matters the most.”
When the bracket came out this past Sunday night, Harvard learned that it would be facing No. 6 University of Louisville in the first round of the tournament. This will be the first time the two teams have ever faced one another.
The Louisville Cardinals (16-3, 6-0 ACC) recently secured the 2021 ACC regular season title before losing 2-1 in a sudden-victory shootout to No. 17 Virginia in the semifinals of the ACC Championship. This is Louisville’s 10th overall NCAA tournament appearance and its seventh at-large bid. In the 2020 season, in which the Crimson was not permitted to play due to Ivy League restrictions, the Cardinals advanced to the NCAA semifinals and reached the quarterfinals in 2019 as well.
“Their championship in the ACC is a show of their strengths and that is something we need to prepare for,” van Herwaarden remarked. “We have been watching a lot of video, discussing it with the team, and I think Louisville will probably do the same for us and try to recognize our strengths.”
“Playing a team that you don’t know can be very fun,” he said. “In the meantime, I want to make sure that we utilize our strengths and make sure that we have something in store to surprise them a little bit.”
Harvard is preparing to take on the No. 6 team in whatever shape or form the Cardinals take to the field on Friday. Through scouting video, high-intensity practice, and running through different situations that could happen during the game, Harvard’s main focus is on bringing what it has to the table.
“We are making sure that we are prepared for the unknown and have a couple of different options of what could happen in the game,” the head coach said. “We are trying to prepare for as many scenarios that we can play out, with a goal down in the last five minutes, a goal up in the final four minutes,” he said. “Those are things we are practicing right now.”
No matter the outcome of Friday’s game, Harvard has had quite the phenomenal season marked by key defensive play. In the Crimson’s sixteen games, there has not been a team that has been able to score more than a single goal against Harvard. The Crimson has proven to be very difficult to score against, and the squad will look to lean on that strength in its NCAA opener.
“The goal is to win,” van Herwaarden said. “I think now we’ve been given an extra opportunity to play for a national championship, and that’s special. We need to make sure we prepare for it properly so that we step off the field no matter what the outcome is knowing that we did everything we could. If that’s the case, then — win or lose — we should be very proud of what we accomplished and then we can look forward to future years.”
“This is just a make-or-break game, so we go in to win it and that’s the desired outcome.”
The Crimson and Cardinals will face off at 2:30 p.m. EST, following the noon matchup between host Michigan and Miami (Ohio). The winners of these first-round matches will play on Sunday for a right to advance to the final four.
— Staff writer Mairead Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.