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Eyeing the Throne
Harvard looks to retake the Ivy League after back-to-back Penn titles
For most programs, back-to-back second-place finishes might be good enough. Most squads would be thrilled by a two-year stretch in which it won seventy percent of its games.
But not Harvard.
Not a team coming out of a decade during which it posted the second-highest winning percentage in the FCS and the seventh-best in all of Division I. Not a coach who has led every single four-year player he has recruited to an Ivy League championship.
Coming off two-straight seasons of 7-3 records and second-place finishes, the Crimson is determined to retake its place atop the Ancient Eight.
The journey towards reclaiming the Ivy title begins tomorrow, when the team travels to face intrastate rival Holy Cross, whom Harvard throttled, 34-6, in last year’s season opener.
Conference play starts on Sept. 23 with a night-game home opener against Brown, a squad that has defeated the Crimson three out of the past four years. With every Ivy team returning its starting quarterback from a year ago, the league is expected to be as deep as ever this season.
“This year, the talent in the Ivy is pretty even, or at least more so than it’s been the last couple years,” senior quarterback Collier Winters said. “So week in and week out, we know we’re going to have a pretty tough opponent.”
After a trip to Lafayette to open October, Harvard travels to Ithaca, N.Y. to face Cornell, coming off a 2-8 season, before returning home to play Bucknell—a squad it has not faced since 1997—a week later.
The Crimson follows up that stretch with a home contest against Princeton, which finished in last place with a 1-9 record last season and lost the league’s leading receiver, Trey Peacock, to graduation. After a home date with Dartmouth and reigning co-Ivy League Player of the Year Nick Schwieger, Harvard heads down to New York City to take on Columbia, led by dual-threat quarterback Sean Brackett.
The Crimson’s last two contests are projected to be its toughest. On Nov. 12, Harvard faces Penn in a home game that could decide the Ivy League title. The Quakers have kept the Crimson from a conference championship in the season’s penultimate game for two straight years, and were picked to three-peat in the league’s preseason poll after returning many components of the best statistical offense and defense in the Ancient Eight last season.
Finally, Harvard will travel to New Haven on Nov. 19 for the 128th playing of The Game, which the Crimson has now won four years running. With the league’s leading passer, Patrick Witt, returning for his senior season, the Bulldogs were picked to finish third—one spot below Harvard—in the league’s preseason poll. That means The Game could take on an even greater importance this year than it already does.
“They’re all tough,” said Crimson coach Tim Murphy of Harvard’s opponents. “Yale’s expecting to have their best team in a long, long time … It won’t get much tougher than if we’re trying to win an Ivy League championship and, oh, by the way, we’re playing in front of 58,000 people at the Yale Bowl against a team that’s beaten us once in the last ten years and hates our guts.”
To get to that point with a chance to win it all will largely depend on the success of Winters. Last season, after being named the preseason Ivy League Player of the Year, the signal-caller had to battle back from a labrum injury that caused him to miss the season’s first five games. Upon returning, Winters was up-and-down, finishing with five touchdowns and five interceptions.
Behind him in the backfield will be junior Treavor Scales, the 2009 Ivy Rookie of the Year. He will take over the starting running back job after the departure of Gino Gordon ’11, who split the Ivy co-Player of the Year honor with Schwieger last season.
“Treavor stayed up here this summer, and he’s really worked hard to come into this preseason camp in really good shape,” Winters said. “I think he’ll be a complete running back for us in a lot of ways, similar to what Gino was for us.”
At wideout, senior Adam Chrissis returns after leading the team with 40 receptions and 481 yards in 2010, as does junior tight end Kyle Juszcyk, who caught 25 passes last year. The team should get a big lift from the return of senior receiver Chris Lorditch, a second-team All-Ivy Leaguer in 2009 who suffered a season-ending knee injury during the second week of the season in 2010.
“Chris Lorditch coming back is a huge thing for our offense,” Murphy said. “We missed Chris a lot last year.”
On defense, senior defensive tackle Josue Ortiz returns to anchor the defensive line. After being named to the Associated Press All-America third team after a 7.5-sack season last year, Ortiz is expected to do even bigger things in 2011. He’ll be joined in the trenches by senior Benjamin Graeff, a preseason All-Ivy second team selection who was leading the league in sacks a year ago before losing his season to injury against Princeton.
Senior captain Alex Gedeon, another preseason All-Ivy pick, will anchor the linebacking core after finishing with 49 tackles and even filling in as an emergency punter in 2010. The group will be without the graduated Nick Hasselberg ’11, who tied for the team lead in tackles with also-departed safety Collin Zych ’11 last year. Senior Dan Minamide will have the tall task of filling in for Zych, the All-American who led the squad in interceptions during his senior season. At corner, senior Matthew Hanson and junior Brian Owusu form a solid combo.
“Matt’s really had a terrific offseason,” Murphy said. “He’s more physical than ever. He’s a guy I think can be one of the best defensive players in the league, a real physical shut-down corner.”
With that squad in place, Harvard believes that, this season, it can not only continue its 10-year streak of seven-plus wins—the first team in Ivy history to achieve that feat—but also finally get back over the championship hump.
“Our goal is always to win an Ivy League title,” Winters said. “That’s what we’re setting out to do again this year. Especially since we haven’t won it the last couple years, I think guys are hungrier and more motivated to do everything we can to get the title back.”
By Scott A. Sherman, The Harvard Crimson