PISCATAWAY, N. J. –– On Sunday, May 15, the men's lacrosse team battled for the NCAA Tournament title for the first time since 2014. The bracket was historic in that six Ivy League teams were given bids, with five of them being seeded in the top eight teams of Division I. Harvard was the only non-seeded Ivy team, garnering an at-large bid on the merit of an impressive season for the Crimson. Harvard had its best league record in over a decade, going 3-3 against Ivy teams. It also earned wins over four ranked squads, its best outcome in over 15 years. Despite its successes, the Crimson’s inclusion in the NCAA Tournament bracket was not without controversy, with ESPN insider Paul Carcaterra intimating that the selection committee might have instead chosen to give an ACC team a nod.
“I thought the Ivy League proved to be the most competitive conference in college lacrosse. I did not see, prior to the selection show, six Ivy teams getting into the tournament. I projected five Ivy teams, with Notre Dame getting the last spot over Harvard,” Carcaterra told The Crimson. “I thought Harvard had a great year, but Notre Dame, in my opinion, with a better RPI, as well as the way they were playing later in the season, deserved that final spot. With that said, the future is very bright for Harvard, and [head] coach Gerry Byrne has laid down a tremendous foundation, one in which will make them competitive nationally for years to come.”
Lacrosse insiders and fans have become used to seeing ACC teams compete and win titles, leading to some surprise when neither Duke or Notre Dame was included in the bracket. Virginia was the only ACC team to make the tournament. The committee seemed to value a team’s Rating Percentage Index (RPI), which calculates through win and loss records, neutrality of the game, home field advantage versus being on the road, and other metrics how the teams should be ranked. By RPI standards, Harvard’s selection appeared to be a surprise; the Crimson ranked 15th in RPI, behind both Duke (7th) and Notre Dame (11th), who beat the Blue Devils twice and won its last six games of the season.
Harvard, despite not earning a spot in the four-team Ivy Tournament on May 6-8, was given a second chance at postseason glory. However, the young Crimson squad was unable to advance past the first round, falling to sixth-seeded Rutgers, 19-9.
“Though the season ended in the First Round of NCAA [tournament], it really is the first round of our development as a team and culture after being apart and away for over two years,” Byrne noted.
The team fought hard for all four quarters, but struggled to control possession, especially on the faceoffs. Faceoffs were a point of weakness on the day as the unit, even after getting the ball to a scrum, was unable to obtain possession. Losing initial clamps was common throughout the regular season, but the wings had excelled at claiming the loose balls; throughout the contest, the Scarlet Knights beat Harvard at its own game, and were able to capitalize on fast break opportunities, scoring several goals either by their FOGO off the initial clamp, or on unsettled opportunities.
“I thought our team continued to fight throughout the entire game,” said first-year midfielder Owen Gaffney, who scored two goals in the contest.“We never quit and we never gave up. We stayed together and tried to claw back. We didn’t get the result we wanted, but we showed resilience throughout the entirety of the game.”
Rutgers efficiently shared the ball, allowing its offense to take advantage of open players on the wings and in the middle. The Crimson defense did a nice job of communicating through the Scarlet Knights’ plays, and junior SSDM Chase Yager had an outstanding performance in his one-on-one play. Down low, first-year defenders Tommy Martinson and Collin Bergstrom worked well together, talking through picks and switches, and staying tight on their players. Overall, the unit had a tough time neutralizing two of Rutgers’ main threats, attackmen Scott Ross, who scored eight goals, and Scott Bartolo, who put up three goals and three assists. These two players were lethal both as individuals and also as facilitators on the attack, drawing doubles from Harvard’s defense and then taking advantage of late slide packages.
“We battled our hearts out. There’s plenty of things we wish we could go back and do a little bit better, but we’ve just got to tip our hats to Rutgers. They played great, and I think their experience showed,” noted senior midfielder Charlie Olmert, who served as one of the team’s captains this season. “I’m so proud of our team; I’m so proud of the way we fought. I’m so lucky and thankful to have been a part of this program.”
On the offensive end, the Crimson was methodical in picking apart the Rutgers defense, which succeeded at adapting to different types of Harvard sets. This patience resulted in the unit taking fewer shots than the Scarlet Knights, 36 to their 47, and this difference, coupled with Rutgers goalie Colin Kirst making 17 solid saves, resulted in the offense not scoring as quickly and confidently as it had in previous contests.
“We were feeling out how they were reacting to us, trying to do a lot of pick plays, and that was working for a little bit,” first-year attacker Sam King said. “Credit to their goalie, he made a lot of saves. We weren’t finishing as well as we wanted to.”
While the loss marked the end of the road for the team’s seniors – FOGO Kyle Massimilian, goalie Kyle Mullin, LSM Jake Hartje, attackman Austin Madronic, FOGO Steven Cuccurullo, and Olmert – the future is bright for the young squad, which boasted the most play time by freshman in all of Division I. The six seniors were leaders to the young group throughout the historic run, which King heavily emphasized after the loss.
“All the credit to the seniors for a great season,” he reflected. “All of it goes to them. Great leadership. They’re the best.”
The seniors made an impact on the program both tangibly on the field, and with their leadership off of the field, and each had comments on how the program shaped them and taught them lessons on camaraderie and teamwork..
“The collaboration of our first years and veterans that built this season will continue in the years to come as we pursue an Ivy League Title & a National Championship,” Byrne commented.
Cuccurullo was an impact player throughout his four years for the Crimson, leading the team with 61 ground balls in his first season and adding a goal and three assists, and 39 ground balls a goal and 4 caused turnovers his senior year.
“It was the journey of a lifetime to be on this team. I can’t thank my teammates enough for the entire experience,” he said. “The program is in great hands moving forward.”
Olmert has fostered a team dynamic of excellence both on and off the field. He was a Rhodes Scholar Finalist, finalist for the Senior CLASS Award, and overcame various injuries to see play time in every game his senior season.
“It’s been the privilege and honor of a lifetime to have been a member of the Harvard lacrosse team these past five years,” he said.
Mullin, who served as a co-captain alongside Olmert, saw action in all four of his seasons, starting his sophomore, junior, and senior years. He was an All-Ivy Honorable Mention selection his senior year, and had a standout performance in the team’s April 23 comeback win against Princeton with eight ground balls and 18 saves.
“Coming back as a fifth year was the best decision I’ve ever made. I will forever hold a special bond with this year’s team that means more to me than I could ever put into words,” Mullin said. “My classmates and I are awaiting graduation on an all but empty campus, and we are constantly reminded of an important lesson. Places are just places, it’s the people that make them special. I hope my teammates know that they meant the world to me, and I hope they remember me as someone who played with my heart every time I put on the jersey.”
Massimilian was an integral part of the face-off unit, working with Cuccurullo for their four seasons together to secure important possession time for the squad.
“Taking a year off to come back and play with this team was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” he said. “I am incredibly grateful to be part of this group of dedicated young men. Harvard lacrosse is a special family, and I have learned countless valuable lessons from my experience.”
Hartje, who also plays for the men’s ice hockey squad, helped the Crimson secure a Feb. 19 victory over New Jersey Institute of Technology, and helped to foster team spirit both on and off the field.
“Being a part of the Harvard lacrosse family was one of the best experiences of my life,” he said. “The friends I made and the community I got to be a part of are the most important pieces of my Harvard years. I am forever grateful for the time I had with these guys.”
Madronic established his crafty and dominant style of play on the offensive end early in his four-year career. He was an immediate boon to the squad as a two-time Ivy League Rookie of the Week his freshman year, and continued to develop his skills well into his senior year, where he finished with 30 goals and 14 assists.
“It’s been the honor of a lifetime being a part of this team and program,” Madronic added. “I can’t thank my teammates, coaches, and the rest of the Harvard lacrosse family enough.”
As he resets for next season, Byrne, who coached the seniors for one full season and two others affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, will have to continue to build his program without six culture-setters in the building. Together, the graduating seniors instilled values of grit, dedication and determination.
The coach was effusive with his praise: “The 2022 senior class of six young men who set a standard on the field and off will be remembered for their skill, mentorship and leadership.”