Photo courtesy: David Silverman Photography
Harvard repeated a unique feat this fall, as the Crimson men and women’s soccer teams each claimed the Ancient Eight crown, marking the first conference sweep for the Crimson in soccer since 1996. This rare achievement has only been accomplished four times prior to this season by Brown in 1994, Harvard in 1996, Princeton in 2001 and Yale in 2005.
The Harvard women successfully defended their Ivy title this season, winning the ninth conference crown in team history, while the men grabbed their 13th title and second in four years. The women’s squad reached the NCAA tournament for the second time in as many years after earning the Ivy’s automatic berth.
“This season was extremely challenging, and I am very proud of how the team was able to turn a 1-5-1 start into a successful Ivy League campaign,” said Ray Leone, head coach of the Harvard women’s team.
The Crimson women’s team opened with a tough stretch, winning only one of its first seven games. However, when Ivy League play opened against Penn Sept. 26, the team found its scoring touch and its winning spark. After the Quakers grabbed an early lead in the 12th minute, Harvard remained composed, scoring the game’s next three goals, including the game-winner by Lizzy Nichols on a penalty kick to grab a 3-2 victory. The Crimson then grabbed two straight non-conference victories over Holy Cross Sept. 29 and Fairfield Oct. 6.
“During this stretch, the leadership from our captains, Gina Wideroff and Lizzy Nichols, and the senior class (Christina Hagner, Kelli Okuji and Lauren Mann) was exceptional,” Leone said. “They stayed strong and consistent and made sure we continued the process of improving on a daily basis. We got back to the basics of working hard and having fun. We continued to jell and get that spring back in our step in the practices right before the Ivy League season began.
Harvard returned to the Ivy portion of its schedule with a trip to Cornell Oct. 10. After a scoreless first half, freshman defender Taryn Kurcz netted a goal at the 52:42 mark, and Sheeleigh added a goal less than three minutes later, helping Harvard earn a 2-0 win. A week later, the heroics continued for the Crimson as Harvard and Brown entered overtime tied at 0-0. Late in the 93rd minute, Melanie Baskind booted a well-placed ball off a free kick into the box, finding the foot of Sheeleigh. Sheeleigh, who led Harvard with four game-winning tallies this season, kicked a shot through the crowd in front of the goal, finding the back of the net for a golden goal, as the Crimson reached 3-0 in Ivy play.
Three days later, Harvard traveled to Yale, also unbeaten in Ivy games. In one of the more exciting games of the season, the Crimson trailed its archrival, 2-1, in the 72nd minute when Patricia Yau tapped in a shot after receiving a long pass from Alexandra Conigliaro. Yau’s goal tied the game for only seven minutes, before Baskind netted the game-winner at 78:44, putting Harvard in sole possession of first place in the Ivy League with a 4-0 record. The Crimson stumbled in its next game, falling to Princeton by a 1-0 margin at Ohiri Field Oct. 24, but the team refused to lose momentum and kept its goal of winning the Ivy crown lay ahead.
“Everyone knew if we continued to believe in ourselves that good results would follow,” Leone stated. “Every team can stay strong when times are good, but the real test of a team is when you are down.”
The Crimson hosted Dartmouth on Halloween, and it was the Big Green that struck first, grabbing a 1-0 lead only six minutes into the game. As if following a script, Harvard battled back. Sheeleigh finished off a corner kick later in the half to tie the game. She scored again in the 87th minute, as she fit a shot into the near post from the right side for the game winner. The victory improved Harvard’s conference record to 5-1, clinching at least a share of the Ivy title, and just as importantly, earned the conference’s automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
“Winning this league is one of the hardest things to do, and we are so appreciative to have that opportunity to do it this year especially since we know how hard it is to accomplish,” Leone explained.
Looking to win the conference outright, Harvard traveled to New York to visit Columbia Nov. 7. The Crimson led most of the game until a header off a free kick by Columbia tied the contest with only 15 seconds remaining in regulation. In the extra session, Baskind lifted Harvard to a 2-1 win as she booted a shot from eight yards out, helping the Crimson finish the regular season with a 6-1 Ivy League record. Harvard entered the postseason as one of the hottest teams in the country, having won eight of its last nine games. The Crimson faced No. 2 seed Boston College and played valiantly, falling by a score of 1-0 in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Mann stopped 10 of the 11 shots she faced against the Eagles, keeping her team within one scoring opportunity of tying the game.
Even with the loss to end the season, Leone agreed that this fall was an overall success for the program, especially after its slow start. “I am sure our team will remember this season for the rest of their lives. I am so happy for our seniors that they were able to go out as Ivy League champion.”
Several members of the team were rewarded for their significant effort this season, both on and off the field. Sheeleigh was tabbed to the All-Ivy League first team, while Mann, Nichols, Baskind and defender Lindsey Kowal earned spots on the second team. Wideroff was named to All-Ivy honorable mention. In addition, Sheeleigh, Baskind and Nichols, who was a finalist for the prestigious Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award, were named to the Academic All-Ivy League team and the trio also garnered recognition on the ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District team. Mann and Sheeleigh were also recently tabbed to the NSCAA All-Mid-Atlantic Region team.
Season Recap: Women's Soccer Wins Second Straight Ivy Title
Photo courtesy: David Silverman Photography