Early Season Success Has Harvard Eyeing Ivy League Crown
Chris Wojcik, Harvard's sixth-year men's lacrosse coach, looks at the changing Ivy League landscape and envisions the Crimson in the thick of it as the 2016 season continues to unfold.
It's not hard to see why. No. 6 Harvard has a large senior class, two new coordinators coming from strong backgrounds in Eric Wolf (offense) and Ben DeLuca (defense) and an offense showing signs of excellent attack chemistry between senior Devin Dwyer and sophomores Morgan Cheek and Joe Lang.
The Crimson, two years removed from winning the Ivy regular-season title and appearing in the school's sixth NCAA tournament, also have shown the right stuff in the clutch. After edging Villanova, Holy Cross and Massachusetts – by winning each game in overtime – Harvard earned its first signature win on Saturday with a 14-9 victory over then-no. 4 Duke.
On the strength of an 8-0 run spanning both halves against the Blue Devils, the Crimson achieved the first 4-0 start at Cambridge since 1992.
"It's really early, so I don't think that [win over Duke] is going to define either of our seasons," said Wojcik, the night before Harvard traveled to Bryant and suffered its first setback of the year on Tuesday. "But I like what I'm seeing."
"Even though we didn't play our best lacrosse, we played three games in eight days to open the year, and we were very resilient," he added. "We had a full week of practice [for Duke], worked hard on our faceoffs, and our players came into that game really hungry. We're a veteran team that's been in a lot of situations, a lot of close games."
With Brown and Yale looking like serious contenders in another packed conference that includes traditional threats Cornell and Princeton, Harvard has plenty of work to do, starting with this weekend's nonconference clash with Penn State.
The Crimson needs to iron out some faceoff play issues, as opponents have won 61 percent of draws through five games. The defense has shined at times, but needs to be more consistent. The offense sometimes takes a while to get going.
Holy Cross led 7-1 midway through the second quarter before Harvard erupted to score 10 of the game's final 13 goals. UMass held an 8-4 advantage midway through the third, before the Crimson closed with a 6-1 run. Against Bryant, Harvard lost 15 of 25 faceoffs and generated only 29 shots, while allowing 53 shots by the Bulldogs and wasting a 17-save night by goalie Robert Shaw.
Dwyer, the team's leading scorer with 16 goals and 12 assists, is one of the tone-setters among a 15-man senior class – which includes several players who missed the 2013 season after being temporarily dismissed in the wake of a cheating scandal that reportedly touched more than 100 students.
The senior class includes the starting close defense unit of Bobby Duvnjak, Stephen Jahelka and Walter Kirby, and starting midfielders Sean Mahon and Keegan Michel.
"There has been a whole new energy and focus this year," said Dwyer, who credited the additions of DeLuca and Wolf with helping to change the atmosphere. "Our defense showed what it can do against Duke. Our tempo was at such a high level. The two things we can control are our attitude and our effort."
During his three seasons (2011-13) as a head coach at Cornell, where he spent 18 seasons as a player and coach, DeLuca's stingy defenses complemented scoring great Rob Pannell with lots of attitude and effort. For the next two years, he was a defensive assistant at Duke, which won its third NCAA crown in 2014.
Wolf is cut from the Albany mold under Scott Marr as a four-year letterwinner there. After two successful seasons running the offense at Siena, which won both Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference titles with him, Wolf returned to his alma mater, where he was offensive coordinator for the past four seasons.
With the already-legendary Thompsons – Miles, Ty and especially Lyle – leading the show, Albany was the yardstick by which fast-break offenses were measured in Division I.
Oh yes, Wolf very much wants the Crimson to push the ball in transition at every opportunity.
"As a player and a coach under Coach Marr, that style is in my veins," Wolf said. "There's no yellow light, only red and green – no caution. I want my guys to play without fear. I don't want them worrying about making mistakes."
The attack unit has embraced the up-tempo style. It was reflected in some of the hard rides that forced a spate of Duke turnovers during that game-turning 8-0 run. Harvard also has shared the ball admirably. The Crimson generated assists on 75 percent of their 48 goals before the 12-9 loss at Bryant.
"We're not settling for 14-yard shots. We're working the ball around for eight-yarders and five-yarders. And we're playing loose with confidence," said Cheek, who along with Lang has given Dwyer a dual sophomore connection.
Cheek has scored 10 goals and added 10 assists. He scored the game-winner against Villanova. Lang has contributed 10 goals and five assists.
Dwyer, who scored the game-winner against UMass with an assist from Cheek and assisted senior midfielder Brendan Newman for the game-winner against Holy Cross, has been a deadly finisher around the crease. He has scored on 61.5 percent of his shots.
"Joe [Lang] and I have been friends since the day we got here. Devin is really easy to play with, because he does everything so well," Cheek said. "We're definitely feeling like we're building some momentum. Our team's attitude is 'Hey, let's keep ratcheting up the intensity. Let's keep this going.'"
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