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Harvard Field Hockey Falls Short of NCAA Tournament Bid Despite Successful Season

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“Humble in victory and gracious in defeat.”

That’s how Harvard field hockey captain Ellie Shahbo, the winningest goalkeeper in program history and First Team All-Ivy League select, described her team’s motto when it comes to winning games.

Despite holding an impressive 13-4 record, in which all four losses were against top-15 opponents, the team did not receive the ending it had worked for, ending the season without an Ivy League championship and bid to the 2022 NCAA Division I Field Hockey Tournament.

“When we lost to Princeton,” Shahbo reflected, “the response was we are gonna do everything we can to put ourselves in the best position in terms of Ivy League championship, getting a bid, but also just to respect the work we put in as a team and the work people put in before this season and in previous seasons.”

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Ranked 16th in the country and with a 0.765 winning percentage, the Crimson was in a strong place to get a bid to the tournament. Though Princeton received the automatic bid from the Ivy League, eight teams received at-large qualifiers: four from the ACC and four from the Big Ten. It seems likely that Harvard’s bid might have gone to Louisville or Wake Forest.

“Obviously, it was really shocking,” the captain noted. “A similar thing happened my sophomore year where we potentially could have gotten a bid but it was even less likely then and this year we were in a really, really good spot to get a bid.”

Shahbo went on to express pride in her team’s tenacity.

“That was shocking and kind of sad,” she said. “The team continues to show great values and great resilience and we came together.”

The Crimson defeated Louisville 1-0 in last year’s tournament to reach the quarterfinal round of the tournament for only the second time in program history. Louisville ended the season on a four-game losing streak, one of which was to Cornell, who Harvard beat 2-1 in overtime. Then, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Cardinals suffered a 5-0 defeat to Penn State.

However, Louisville did earn a few large statement wins. The Cardinals defeated several top-15 teams this season, including Penn State, Liberty, Duke, and the University of Michigan, a team Harvard beat in an intense 1-0 overtime battle on the Wolverine’s own turf during last year’s tournament.

“I think that's something we lacked this season was big statement wins,” Shahbo said. “We were winning, we were getting the outcomes we needed, but we just weren't going out with a bang, really making it clear how dominant we were.”

The goalkeeper was confident that, if the Crimson had earned the opportunity to prove its mettle in the NCAA Tournament, it would have had the potential to make another deep run.

“This team has so much potential and talent,” she said. “They can do that. It is very much within their power to do that.”

Harvard’s team is not the same as it was last year. After losing instrumental seniors such as Hannah Pearce and Mimi Tarrant, it lost some maturity and players with experience in collegiate field hockey. With a fresh roster of new faces, returning players had to step up into leadership positions. But these young players have not shorted in the talent they’ve brought.

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First-year defender Bronte-May Brough tied for first in the Ivy League for goals scored (12) and was named Ivy League Rookie of the Year. Another first-year, midfielder Kitty Chapple, received first-team honors. Among second-team honors and honorable mentions were sophomore midfielder Emily Guckian and first-year forward Kate Oliver, respectively.

“This year was gonna be a big year in terms of a lot of people stepping up a little bit, in terms of leadership, maturity, quality on the field,” said Shahbo, Harvard’s Academic All-Ivy selection. “Once we get that cohesion perfectly formed in terms of everybody stepping up a little bit, everybody growing up a bit and developing into the leader and player they are, I honestly can’t wait to see what the girls do later on.”

Shahbo has remained optimistic about future Crimson squads. In addition to the first-years and sophomores’ exceptional display of their talent this season, the team gained valuable experience competing against ranked teams.

Harvard field hockey can perhaps best be defined by its ability to bite down and fight to the end, no matter what the name is on the other team’s jersey. The Crimson rarely suffers blowouts or large upsets, bringing the same level of competitive drive to each and every team it faces. In all four of its overtime battles this season, Harvard took home the win. The Crimson’s run of crunch-time success extends into last season, when it won five of its six overtime bouts, with the only loss being in the National Semifinals against eventual champions Northwestern.

“I think that's something our [head] coach Tjerk [van Herwaarden] really emphasizes—that no matter who we’re playing, whether that's a top-10 team or someone ranked below us—that it doesn't matter, that a win is a win,” Shahbo noted. “That we have to play to our standard regardless of who we are playing, regardless of what the score is in that game, that we walk off that field knowing we did what we could to win.”

The mentality that he preaches to each of his players is one reason why van Herwaarden has turned the Harvard program around, winning three Ivy League titles in his first 11 seasons.

“That’s something that he inspires in all of us and as a team something we try to fundamentally do each and every day,” Shahbo reflected.

Despite surprisingly not receiving a bid to the NCAA Tournament, the team has much to look forward to. It was, all in all, a phenomenal season for the Crimson, which demonstrated its ability to dominate and compete with other high-level teams like itself. Being humble in victory and gracious in defeat, this ending will surely ignite a fire in Harvard to take back its Ivy League title next year and make another NCAA tournament run.

“We’re consistently trying to be a high-performing, competitive team in the top five to ten teams in the country,” Shahbo said. “I think there are ups and downs and I don't think this is a reflection of where this team is going.”

The Surrey, England native, who will graduate this semester, noted that despite falling short of its lofty goals in 2022, the Crimson will return next fall with a chip on its shoulder.

“This is one little bump in the road that generates a lesson,” the captain reflected. “I think it's really easy to compare what happened with the postseason last year to now, but I think next year is going to be really exciting to see the girls come out with a bang and be really determined to get that bid because it's not a given and they know it's not something that's easy to get.”

The 2022 NCAA Division I Field Hockey tournament has already begun, with Delaware and Miami (OH) advancing to the first round after defeating their opponents in the opening round on Wednesday. Eight more teams punched their quarterfinals tickets on Friday in matches played at campus sites across the country. The Ivy League’s lone representative, Princeton, was eliminated with a 5-2 defeat.


–Staff writer Mairead B. Baker can be reached at mairead.baker@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @baker_mairead.

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