After a 2-0 start to the season in a pair of matches against the University of Massachusetts and the University of Connecticut, No. 14 Harvard field hockey has begun its quest toward both the Ivy League and NCAA tournaments.
However, a few things have changed since Harvard last took to Berylson Field in the spring. Its former All-Ivy goalkeeper Ellie Shahbo ‘23 hung up her Crimson cleats, a fresh set of competitive first-years has joined the roster, and the Ivy League has changed the rules of its tournament — an impactful change that may work in Harvard’s favor.
This year, the Ivy League will host its first-ever four-team postseason field hockey tournament to determine which school it will send to the highly-anticipated NCAA tournament. The four teams will consist of the top four in the regular season, with the winning school receiving an automatic bid to the NCAA, no matter its Ivy League record.
Previously, the end-of-season Ivy League tournament did not determine which team would receive a bid to the NCAA tournament but was rather based on the team’s conference record. For instance, if both Harvard and Princeton had perfect 6-0 records and were set to face each other in the final Ivy League regular season matchup, a win from Princeton would send it to the NCAA tournament — as was the case in 2022. The team who did not win would have to wait for an at-large bid from the NCAA. In years past, for Harvard and Princeton, this meant that one bad game could lead to the end of a postseason run.
This fall, the NCAA tournament will take place in reigning champion territory, Chapel Hill, N.C., from Nov. 17-19. In 2022, the Tar Heels edged 2021 tournament champion No. 2 Northwestern to take back the title. Just the year before, Harvard had lost to Northwestern in the final four of the tournament in a gritty overtime battle.
Though Harvard was slotted second in the Ivy League preseason poll, with archrival No. 8 Princeton in first place, the Tigers received only seven more votes than the Crimson, emphasizing the close competition between the two Ivy teams. For years, the Ivy League trophy has shifted back and forth between Cambridge and New Jersey, rarely seeing another state.
One advantage Princeton has over Harvard is the lineup of its early-season schedule. Though off to a 0-2 start, the Tigers have faced familiar NCAA competition like No. 12 Louisville and No. 1 North Carolina. Other top teams like No. 2 Northwestern, No. 4 Maryland, and No. 18 Rutgers loom before its Ivy season commences. Princeton’s squad may gain extra preparation and experience that Harvard’s younger team will not have before it opens its Ivy season.
Although the Crimson has its eyes set on the end-of-season prize, head coach Tjerk van Herwaarden recalled that the team is “taking it game by game.”
“We are preparing for Ivy League play, which will have a whole different meaning to share with the tournament at play and [the] teams will be better prepared — they'll be stronger, [and] there'll be lowering the competition to actually make the tournament.”
This weekend, Harvard will take a road trip south to face Liberty and the No. 6 University of Virginia in a pair of matches that will give it a similar type of preparation that Princeton is currently receiving. Yet, the Crimson still has games against teams like No. 7 St. Joseph’s and No. 9 Syracuse sprinkled into the middle of the fall — though it may not be in time before the Ivy season gets going.
“That's a level where we want to compete with on a weekly basis,” reflected van Herwaarden on the upcoming games this weekend. “That's the goal, we want to be a top-10 team. And in order to be a top-10 team, we need to beat these teams that are in it.”
In a trend similar to what it's seen in the past few seasons, many of the Crimson’s underclassmen have been stepping up in these highly competitive early-season games.
In her first collegiate game, first-year midfielder Lara Beekhuis scored a goal against the UMass Minutewomen, giving Harvard the lead into the fourth quarter. Another first-year, forward Sage Piekarski, has been a threat in the front, and returning sophomores Kittie Chapple and Bronte May-Brough are already racking up points. Sophomore midfielder Marie Schaefers even scored the game-winning goal in overtime against UConn.
Harvard — a notoriously defensive team — may strengthen its offense this season with recruits like Beekhuis and Piekarski.
“Tactically, we have done a few more things that allow us to have more threat, third circle — we're putting ourselves in more positions, in better positions to score goals,” the head coach reflected.
Having goals earlier in the game will be key for the Crimson, preventing it from playing fourth-quarter and overtime deciders as it has in the past, giving it more quality. In turn, sharpening these more technical concepts in the early season may lead to the strong attacks it will need in the Ivy League and postseason run.
One elephant in the room is the question of which goalie will be in net after the departure of Shahbo. Harvard has the luxury of two different goalies — senior Sofia Castore and sophomore Tessa Shahbo, Ellie’s younger sister.
Castore began the season for Harvard at UMass, letting in only one of two shots faced. Shahbo faced 11 shots from the Huskies — a team Harvard has not beaten in over a decade — making four saves and letting in two goals.
Though the two have different playing styles and come with their own strengths, the next few weeks will be important games for determining which keeper will stay in the net for Ivy League deciders.
“They both are phenomenal goalkeepers who have been working with Ellie [Shahbo] last year in a very tight and healthy goalkeeping unit,” van Herwaarden said. “Right now they are competing and doing what they can do.”
Looking ahead to this weekend, the Crimson will take on Liberty tomorrow at 4:00 PM EST in Lynchburg, Va. On Sunday, it will travel northeast towards Charlottesville to take on the University of Virginia at noon EST.
“We'll get a lot out of this weekend because either we will realize that we still have work to do and will know where the work is.”