Teammates for Life
Twenty-five years ago, the Harvard women’s lacrosse team won the national championship, a first for a women’s team at Harvard. The road to the title had not always been easy—the team had lost the national championship game the previous year by a single goal. The bonds forged among the teammates—in defeat as well as victory—have proven lasting, as have the life lessons they learned together.
Princeton N.J., May 1990. The last 30 seconds of the women’s lacrosse NCAA championship finals between Harvard and the University of Maryland are ticking away. The score is 8-7; the Crimson leads by 1. The referee calls Harvard for intentional running out of bounds, and gives the ball to Maryland. Sophomore goalkeeper Sarah Leary ’92 feels a knot in the pit of her stomach.
“This is why you play…hold the post…hold the post…” she thinks, as the pressure mounts to perform at this win-or-lose moment.
When Maryland took a last desperate shot, Leary made a neat save that helped make history. Twenty seconds later, the Harvard’s women’s lacrosse team captured the first national championship for a women’s team in University history. “The nation has taken notice,” declared a Harvard Varsity Club news bulletin at the time.
The win came on the heels of a series of victories in an undefeated season for the Crimson, a team that had five All-Americans, an Ivy League Player of the Year, and seniors with a career record of 49-8-1 overall. No player on the team had lost an Ivy League game.
But some members of the team still remembered a bitter defeat just a year earlier, when the Crimson lost to Penn State in the national championship finals by a single goal. “Literally when that game ended my junior year, I knew immediately that we were going to win next year,” said Julie Smail ’90, in an interview last week. “We were all like: what just happened? How did this just slip away from our hands?”
That 1989 defeat fueled the team’s burning desire to claim a championship they felt they deserved. Determination and a year of hard work culminated as the 1990 game was declared over at 8-7—the most celebrated moment in the history of Harvard women’s lacrosse.
This collective experience of setting a high goal and working together to achieve it proved to be life-changing for many women on the team. Twenty-five years on, the victory against Maryland still feels empowering. “To experience that type of success as a team early on—that’s a really powerful weapon to have as you start your life,” said Leary, who went on to attend the Business School and is now a technology executive and a serial entrepreneur based in California. She described starting a company as “the ultimate team sport” and thinks of herself as a team player in life, a characterization that was shaped during the 1990 season.
Carole Kleinfelder, who coached the 1990 team, said in an interview that the “incredible chemistry” among the members sets them apart from other lacrosse teams in the country. “They love each other,” she added, simply.
Team members say that Kleinfelder’s unique ability to keep things “light and fun” and her laissez-faire approach to team management helped foster such chemistry. Smail remembers there were “literally no rules,” and the players enjoyed “a ton of independence.” Lynn Dwyer ’90 said Kleinfelder did not micromanage because she trusted that everyone was a responsible adult.
“It’s not a job. You can’t make it a job,” Kleinfelder said. “You make it fun by doing quirky things in practice, by not taking yourself seriously, and not allowing [the players] themselves to be taken too seriously.”
The team had its own rituals and traditions. Before every game, the players would walk from the locker room to the field with Journey’s song “Don’t Stop Believin’” playing in the background, reminding them to keep their faith alive. This ritual was disrupted before the crushing 1989 game, however, when the boombox batteries died halfway through the song. The players still joke that not hearing the song was one reason they lost the game, according to a short documentary about the team that several of the players helped make.
Elisabeth Dean ’89 remembered that the team had a “mindfulness training” coach, who asked the players to stand in a circle, hold hands, and envision winning before each game. “It was very progressive at the time,” Dean said. “We all at first thought it was kind of silly, but in the end it was really beneficial.”
For her part, Kleinfelder said coaching the team was “pure joy.” Not only did she remember the team’s major defeats and victories, she also vividly recalled how the freshmen cooked some inedible macaroni and cheese when she took the team on a spring-break trip to Ocean City, New Jersey.
Two and a half decades later, these lasting bonds are still going strong. The players attended each other’s weddings. They know when everyone’s children were born. They find any reason to get together. Within any year, Leary said she sees at least 10 of her teammates at some point. Dwyer, who was Smail’s roommate and teammate, later served as her bridesmaid. Julia Veghte ’90 and Dean and their families have shared the same ski house for three years.
“We are teammates for life,” Leary said. “We’re there for each other; supporting each other in a new chapter of our lives, providing honest feedback, celebrating each other’s successes, or being there in the darkest moments.”
This April, when Harvard Athletics helped organize a daylong reunion for the championship team that culminated—after the current team beat Yale—with a celebratory dinner, the players brought spouses, children, and parents. Many of the parents, who had forged friendships with other parents through watching their daughters play lacrosse together, were as excited as the players themselves to reunite with their old friends. The gathering also saw the endowment of the women’s lacrosse head coach position in honor of Carole Kleinfelder by 40 alumnae, including 12 members of the 1990 team.
Many of the players have stayed involved in lacrosse in their post-Harvard lives, and are eager to spread their passion for the game to today’s future players through coaching. Dwyer founded and now overseas FILIA, a Philadelphia-based field hockey and lacrosse program for young girls; Smail directs its Boston branch. Dean served as a director at San Francisco Riptide, a similar organization on the West Coast. Leary kept playing lacrosse for almost another decade after graduating from the College. “Even though I’ve moved out to the West Coast, I’ve remained hugely supportive of the current team at Harvard,” she said. “There was a rich tradition before us with Harvard lacrosse, and we want to make sure that that tradition continues for generations onward.”