No Regrets: Disappointed Cornell Loses to Harvard for Third Time
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
ALBANY, N.Y. For the third time this season, Cornell and Harvard battled to a tight game decided in the third period. And for the third time, Cornell came up just short, falling 3-1 and sending the Crimson to tomorrow night's ECAC championship game against Princeton.
The result left the Cornell players visibly upset, with captain Topher Scott's eyes a bright red as he took the postgame press conference podium for possibly the final time in his career.
"It's kind of tough to put feelings together right now," said the 5-foot-6 gritty forward, who topped the 100-point plateau earlier this season. "You've got so much going through your head. You put everything you have into the team for four years. It's not going to be easy to say goodbye, especially the guys who you're with seven to eight hours a day. Some guys, you live with, and some of these guys are your best friends. It's kind of tough to put into words if you haven't experienced something like that."
Saturday, Cornell will play Colgate at 4 p.m. in the ECAC third-place game. But battling for third place is not what Cornell is accustomed to when traveling to the ECAC championship weekend. In its last five trips to the final four, the Big Red advanced to the championship game each time, last playing in the consolation game in 2000.
Then again, perhaps a championship game was too much to ask of the young Big Red team, featuring only four seniors. Every other team in the league has at least five.
Despite it all, Cornell coach Mike Schafer couldn't have been more pleased with the few seniors he does have.
"These guys have done a tremendous job with leadership," said Schafer, referring to Scott and Raymond Sawada, sitting to his left. "Our team is pretty young. But there's a lot of pressure to win at Cornell. We have great fans — the best fans in the country. A lot of pressure to win there. And just like a lot of other places in the country, when things aren't going right and you don't win every game to start the season, the pressure can mount. And these guys did a tremendous job with the leadership within the team, to stay the course and keep our guys focused on controlling the things that they can control and not worry about all of the distractions.
"I give our senior class, and especially our captains, credit for keeping our players grounded, staying the course, fighting to get back to Albany, and getting the opportunity to win an ECAC championship. That's why they came to Cornell."
And when Scott and Sawada arrived on campus in Ithaca, N.Y., the Cornell team they joined — and its mystique — was much different than perhaps it is now. Their freshman year, they won the ECAC championship, beating Harvard in the title game. That was, in fact, arguably the last "big game" in which the Red has toppled their archrivals from Cambridge, Mass. The Crimson has dominated the series with Cornell ever since the arrival of coach Ted Donato.
Harvard has now won four straight against Cornell, including taking this season's series 3-0. In Friday's semifinal, the Crimson went 3-for-6 on the power play against a Big Red penalty kill ranked in the top 10 in the nation. In their last meeting in Albany, the 2006 championship game, Harvard converted on five of 10 power play chances.
Said Schafer, "Each game has its own identity, its own result. All three games [this season] were very, very tight hockey games. I only ask our players to approach the game and lay it on the line, and in that game, have no regrets how they focused, prepared, and played their hearts out for each other. The season series is the season series, but we lost the game tonight, and that's the one that really stings."
"To tell you the truth, it hasn't really hit me yet," added a quiet Sawada. "Obviously, we're really disappointed, but I think, come next week, I'm going to realize that we're not playing hockey next week, and that's when it's going to really hit me. But for next year, we have a great group of guys. I think, just at the end of the season, everyone else figured out what their job was, and I think that's why we had success at the later part of the year, especially the playoffs. For next year, they got a bunch of great players, a lot of great leaders, a lot of great young players. So they have a bright future ahead of them."
Scott echoed his co-captain's sentiments.
"I think things were coming together unbelievably toward the end of the year," said the Buffalo Grove, Ill. native. "I think everybody on this team learned more than they have their entire lives [this year]. And this just one game set it back. I don't think it was inexperience because there's so much passion and character [on this team], and that overcomes inexperience."
Indeed, Cornell seemed to reawaken at the end of the year, upending Dartmouth and Union in back-to-back best-of-three series to advance to Albany. And something else began to return for the Big Red, too: its trademark physical play, which made Cornell a dominant force in the early part of this decade.
That physical advantage, Schafer said, a signature for the Big Red during its recent decade-long stretch of success, was lacking last year, when the Big Red did not advance to the ECAC championships at all.
"Tonight, we played physical enough to create turnovers and physical enough to get some opportunities," said Schafer. "That was one of the biggest things that we didn't have last year. I think we have a physical edge to wear teams down as the game goes on. Last year, we got outshot in the third period, probably outscored in the third period. But this year we were able to play strong in the third and give ourselves opportunities."
Now, all that's left for this season is Saturday's consolation game with travel partner Colgate. And no matter what happens, the Big Red will end the season with no regrets.
"I talked to our team about having no regrets going into the game, making sure that we played extremely hard and played together as a team," said Schafer, who also credited Harvard goaltender Kyle Richter for his 31 saves. "That's all we've asked from our players all season long — to focus, to show up, and to lay it all on the line. And I think they did that tonight."