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Harvard coach Devon Wills.

Harvard Women Rising After Dormant Decades

April 11, 2024
Beth Ann Mayer
Harvard Athletics

Harvard women’s lacrosse head coach Devon Wills was a bit late to the interview for this story on Monday at 3 p.m. You’ll have to forgive her. She was watching the total solar eclipse, an event that will not happen again until 2044.

Like the sun and the moon, the stars are aligning for the Crimson this season, six years into Wills’ tenure. It’s been a long time coming and required one of the game’s all-time greatest goalies and competitors to step outside her comfort zone and exercise some patience.

“I would have liked it to be a little bit faster,” Wills said. “Every time I coach a game or team, my expectation is to win the game, win the conference or be in that championship conversation.”

At 8-2 overall and 3-1 in the Ivy League, No. 20 Harvard is in that conversation for the first time in decades. Carole Kleinfelder led Harvard to a national title in 1990. The Crimson last won an Ivy crown since sharing it with one of the league’s modern standard-bearers, Princeton, in 1993.

It has not made the Ivy League tournament final since 2011, when it lost to the Tigers 12-10. When Wills took the helm in 2018, Harvard had finished above .500 seven times in the 21st century and was coming off a 6-9 campaign that did not include a trip to the conference tournament.  

Long story short, everyone has had to exercise patience with the program, and Wills is working on hers. Her first year in 2019 wasn’t easy — a 1-6 mark in conference play and a 6-9 overall record. But she was seeing progress from the inside. Harvard was 3-3 in 2020 before the Ivy League became the first conference to cancel the season due to COVID-19.

“We felt we had gotten through to some kids and understood some of the pressures these women face at Harvard,” Wills said. “They just don’t get a break. Excellence is expected all the time. Everywhere you go. It took us a while to understand that. When the pandemic hit, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh. How could you possibly cancel our season? We’re finally doing what you hired us to do.’”

It’s been repeatedly said regarding the Ivy League — it wasn’t just 2020. It was 2021, too, a distinction that puts the conference in a league of its own in Division I.

“Losing the subsequent year is where it really became hard because we didn’t know what was going happen from the league or school standpoint,” Wills said. “It was hard to even advise our players on what to do.”

Wills and her staff didn’t just hit the pause button. They had to hit reset.

“We had to start from scratch recruiting-wise,” Wills said. “We had to shift our focus, and everything was digital.”

That meant Wills and her staff had to continue to navigate the world of virtual conversations and tours of Harvard’s historic campus in Boston’s backyard, which frequently sells itself.

Yet, perhaps ironically, Wills began to see clues that change was coming to Harvard in group chats.

“We started to see that the kids started to believe, and they started to care about lacrosse,” Wills said. “They’ve got these group chats, and they’re always talking about games. We knew it was a matter of time before things were going to start going our way. From some of the most grueling practices, weather, or early mornings, they’ve done everything we’ve asked and seem happy to do it.”

Harvard didn’t just return to the field in 2022. It qualified for the Ivy tournament for the first time since 2017, losing to Penn in the semis. It was promising. But a second semifinal loss in a row to Penn in 2023 didn’t sit well, and it fueled 2024’s leap forward.

“They never let the loss in the semis go last year,” Wills said. “They came into the fall with that. That’s a feeling you work hard to avoid, and you work hard to get something different.”

Callie Hem was already one of Harvard’s top attackers. The Needham (Mass.) High School product and one-time USA Lacrosse All-American, intended to go elsewhere but felt Harvard was a better fit. Wills agreed.

Hem started every game as a sophomore in 2022. Last season, she nabbed first-team all-conference honors after finishing third in goals per game (2.87). Hem has nearly doubled that output in 2024, averaging 4.30 goals per game, good for third in Division I. Her 43 goals lead a Crimson scoring offense pouring in 16.80 goals per game, fifth nationally.

“She’s somebody that’s always carried a big burden for our program because of her capability, but she’s so humble,” Wills says. “If you watch her, she celebrates harder for her teammates than she ever does for herself. I think that’s why the team loves her so much — she doesn’t want the attention at all.”

Hem cheered hard for Riley Campbell in Harvard’s 13-5 win over Cornell last weekend. Campbell led the Crimson with five goals and has a team-high 52 points (42G, 10A). Campbell, too, ranks in the top 10 nationally in goals per game (4.20).

“Riley is probably the most competitive kid and up there with the top three or four I’ve ever coached,” Wills said. “When she wants to go, she’ll find a way to go.”

And Caroline Mullahy (40A) will find Campbell. And Hem. And anyone else cutting toward the cage.

“It’s been fun to have Kenzie [Kent] back [as an assistant coach],” Wills said. “She can kind of have some of that lefty love with Caroline because they’re feeders and dodgers, too — just so creative and athletic.”

Mullahy has also helped bring along first-year attacker Callie Batchelder, who Wills expects to have a more prominent role down the stretch.

“She a bit similar to Caroline in that she’s creative, and her stick work is sharp,” Wills said.

The offense starts in the circle, where the Crimson have leaned on Maddie Barkate (69 DC).

“Maddie loves the strategy of the game and stepping up there,” Wills said. “She enjoys figuring out what to do and what the other team is going to do … and running the circle.”

While the offense’s numbers are simply gaudy, don’t discount the defense — how could you on a team coached by Wills, who once spearheaded USC’s lauded zone defense and served as the goalie for the U.S. women’s national team?

The Crimson defense is yielding 9.20 goals per game.

“When they’re playing well, they feel like they can move without having to say anything, and they know exactly what to expect from each other,” Wills said. “As a defensive unit, you have to know exactly how somebody wants to move and what someone’s body language is when they’re being a bit more aggressive. They’ve done a great job reading each other and having each other’s backs.”

Senior netminder Chloe Provenzano (.469SV%, 9.69GAA) sets the tone.

“She doesn’t let things bother her and has pretty thick skin,” Wills said. “Because of that demeanor, it allows the defense to refocus and self-correct when we get scored on without it being detrimental to their confidence.”

Harvard’s defense will be critical down the stretch in a conference with two of the nation’s top-scoring defenses, No. 12 Penn and No. 10 Yale. Its lone single-digit goal output of the season came in its only Ivy League loss (18-8 to Penn). The Bulldogs? They’re up next following a statement 16-8 win over the defending champion Quakers on Sunday.

“Yale is a strong team,” Wills said. “You have to have strategy everywhere on the field to beat them.”

The Ivy League is one of the nation’s most competitive leagues, with four teams in the USA Lacrosse Top 20. Brown is on the cusp under first-year head coach Katrina Dowd, too. The canceled 2020 and 2021 seasons left the league in a state of flux. Now, it has propelled the league into a state of strength in 2024, potentially boosting the potential of Harvard and other teams to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament should they not win the conference tournament

“We know the goal for probably all of us is to win the league,” Wills said. “But it can only be one. And if [someone doesn’t win], who’s putting themselves in a position to compete in May?”

To do that will be an exercise in patience for Wills and the Crismon.

“There are obviously smaller goals,” Wills said. “We don’t want to be playing our best lacrosse in February. We want to be together right now, in the next three weeks. The biggest thing is to win the league. You know how to do that? Compete every day. Get better every day.”