The women’s Ivy League was tumultuous to say the least. Dartmouth was undoubtedly the surprise of the season, holding onto to single-digit wins against traditionally stronger teams and ending the regular season undefeated. Equally as surprising, last year’s Ivy champion Princeton went winless through league and survived a relegation match from Tier B topper Cornell.
But arguably the biggest shocker came in late September/early October, when Harvard rebounded from a 10-5 loss to Dartmouth to defeat Brown 57-7 the following Saturday. It was a turning point for the new varsity team, and the Crimson surged through the rest of the fall and to the top of the Ivy League podium.
“We were not happy with the way we played in terms of team effort and intensity on the field,” Harvard coach Sue Parker remembered the team’s league-opener against Dartmouth. “We came back to Cambridge, took a long look in the mirror and decided what kind of team we wanted to be. We changed ourselves, almost immediately, by having a more clear focus on what we wanted to be and what we did not want to be.”
Captains Xanni Brown (“one of the most ferocious competitors I’ve ever met in my life”), Ali Haber and Brandy Machado were the catalysts for change, both in attitude and play. Parker worked on some contact skills and some technical aspects before the Brown game, but it was the new team focus that allowed the players to apply those lessons so effectively in their 50-point win over Brown.
“The team’s response was muted,” Parker said after the Brown victory. “They were pleased that they played so well, but no one made a comment about the score. It was merely in relation to: This is the minimum standard that we’ve set for ourselves going forward. That performance was based on what we expected of ourselves.”
Harvard upheld those standards on Oct. 12 with a 36-0 victory over Princeton. The Crimson finished the regular season 2-1 and took the second seed into the Ivy semifinals against Brown, nearly a month after the teams’ first meeting.
Although Brown proved that it, too, had improved over the last month, Harvard ran out to a 31-5 victory and berth to the final. On the other side, Dartmouth added another single-digit victory to its cache, 12-10 over Princeton, and booked its trip to the final.
Retribution was at stake for Harvard, but so was an opportunity to celebrate a turn-around season in the best way possible: with a trophy hoisted above one's head. Flyhalf Brown put the team up early with a try, and center Cayla Calderwood (photo, top) followed suit for the 12-0 halftime lead. Try as they might, Dartmouth could not penetrate Harvard's wall of defense, while second-half tries from Kaleigh Henry, Shelby Lin and Lenica Morales-Valenzuela helped Harvard to a 29-0 shutout.
“I was impressed with all four teams’ level of play and overall intensity,” Parker said. “What allowed us to prevail both days was superior defense and superior teamwork, which made all of the difference in the world. We were playing against many excellent teams and players, but we were able to execute our game plan in a more concerted fashion.
“Skill development, fitness and technical understanding of the game – we’re still early on in our development,” Parker looked at the bigger picture. “In September, the team was acclimating to the many new things that we were introducing and asking them to do, including just the basic framework of the team. There was a point in October where everything clicked, and they went from having to think a lot when they were playing to just being able to play. We’re still a long way from our potential, but I’m really looking forward to the spring season and going forward as we develop.”
For Parker and team, this championship is especially important, as the club celebrates its first-ever varsity season. This achievement has only boosted rugby in the already high esteem of the university.
“The response back here on campus has been overwhelming jubilant,” Parker said. “Everyone, the coaching staff included, is so proud of these players. What this championship represents is the players’ commitment to each other and the team, and an unbelievable well of hard work over the past weeks – all with the support of the athletic department. It’s an example of what rugby teams can accomplish when they have this kind of support and infrastructure in their athletic departments.
“It’s amazing,” Parker reflected on her first season as a varsity coach. “I pinch myself everyday. Across the board, everyone has been so supportive of rugby. They’re excited, curious about rugby. They’re becoming spectators and fans, bringing their families out to games. It’s an unbelievable environment in which to live, train and play.”
The trip is only beginning for Harvard, which now has an automatic bid to USA Rugby's Round of 16 in the spring.