Lacrosse attacker Greg Cohen scrambles defenses.
He was a world-beater before he arrived at Harvard. In 2003, as a new high-school graduate, Greg Cohen ’07 played on the U.S. under-19 national lacrosse team and scored nine goals in six games to help the United States to victory in the Junior World Championships. Then, as a freshman, he quickly emerged as a dangerous attackman, leading the Crimson in scoring with 26 points and being named Rookie of the Year by the New England Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association.
But on the first day of practice his sophomore year, Cohen broke his right arm in a bad landing after dunking during a pickup basketball game. “He’s probably the only guy on the team who can dunk a basketball,” says head men’s lacrosse coach Scott Anderson. “I went to the emergency room and when the radiologist came out with the x-ray, I knew it was the end of Greg’s season. It was devastating.”
Though Cohen lost a year of athletic development, he met adversity with aplomb, attending all the team’s practices and games. “The way he handled things was very impressive, very mature,” Anderson says. “It gave me good perspective,” Cohen recalls. “You realize how much you miss playing. I also realized that I had made a great choice by coming to Harvard: you don’t want to pick your school based only on a sport.” (A history concentrator who lives in Quincy House, Cohen also practices martial arts with the hapkido club.)
Last year, he returned to lax with a vengeance, scoring at least one goal in all 13 games and earning honorable mention all-America status from the U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association and a second-team all-Ivy nod. He was second on Harvard’s squad in goals (23), assists (7), and points (30). But “It’s part of the subtlety of our sport that statistics can miss the big picture,” explains Anderson. “We ask him [Cohen] to be the focal point of the opponents’ defense—he draws double-teams every time he dodges [moves with the ball on offense]. Even outstanding defensive players can’t really cover Greg one-on-one; they’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work. So he gets people to move, to ‘slide’ off their own man onto him for the double-team. The goal we score may be two or three passes away, but he set it in motion.”
Lacrosse coaches recognize Cohen’s ability to disrupt a defense and this year put him on the preseason “watch list” for the Tewaaraton Trophy, given annually to the game’s preeminent college player. (Tewaaraton is the Mohawk word for lacrosse; Native American tribes invented the sport, and the Onondaga, Eastern Cherokee, and Ojibwe languages also have words for it.) “Maybe we haven’t underrated Greg Cohen,” wrote Inside Lacrosse magazine, which devoted a full page to him in a piece on underrated players. “Maybe we just know how good he’s going to be.”
Extraordinary speed is the key gift that helps the six-foot, 185-pound Cohen bedevil defenders. “In high school, he pretty much ran by everybody,” says Anderson. “He was so effective that he scored most of the time from right on top of the goal. In college, it’s harder because team defenses are better.” Consequently, Cohen has improved his outside shooting (top shoot-ers can hit the six-foot- square goal from nearly 30 yards away) and has become more aware of the overall defensive schemes Harvard faces.
The Crimson plays a tough schedule in a sport with lots of parity; the Ivy League is so strong that last spring it sent four teams (Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Cornell) to the NCAA tournament. Princeton and Cornell are consistent powerhouses (the two colleges have won or shared the Ivy men’s title every year since 1996, except 2003, when Dartmouth joined them), and early this season, Cornell ranked first in the nation. This year, for the first time, Harvard held winter practices inside the Stadium bubble (above) and has three games scheduled on the Stadium’s new artificial turf. (The Boston Cannons, a professional lacrosse team, will also play six night games under new lights at the Stadium from May to August.)
Lacrosse is a growing sport. Its three traditional hotbeds are Maryland, Long Island, and upstate New York, but nowadays, “There is a much broader geographical base than ever,” says Anderson, who is in his twenty-eighth year at Harvard and twentieth as head coach. “We see great players from Texas, California, Ohio, and Michigan, to name a few.” Yet 80 to 90 percent of the players still come from North America; despite its rapid growth, lacrosse has not yet become a global sport like soccer, tennis, or basketball.
Harvard has shared the Ivy men’s lacrosse title three times (in 1964, 1980, and 1990) and fields a strong squad this spring, with many returning from last year’s NCAA tournament team. Attackman Evan Calvert ’07, an excellent pure shooter, led the Crimson in points last year with 26 goals and 12 assists. Defenseman Eric Posner ’09 excels at stripping away the ball, and face-off specialist John Henry Flood ’07 ranked eighteenth nationally last year in face-off win percentage (55.2 percent). Joe Pike ’10 and Evan O’Donnell ’08 have shown both skill and guts in goal. (Aside from their helmets and chest protectors, lacrosse goalies wear little protective equipment while facing a hard, solid-rubber sphere, slightly smaller than a tennis ball, streaking their way at up to 100 miles per hour. “Those goalies get the worst bruises you’ve ever seen,” Cohen says.)
And lax is an aggressive, hard-hitting contact sport up and down the field. “The first time people see it they are shocked by how hard people are getting slashed,” Cohen reports. Much of the slashing comes from each team’s three defenders, who wield six-foot-long sticks (the three midfielders and three attackmen use 40-inch-long sticks, although when a team goes on defense, one midfielder will run off and a fourth six-foot stick can come onto the field with his replacement). Longer sticks allow defenders to keep attackers further away from them, creating more room to deal with feints and fakes.
Checking an attacking player often means “whaling someone on the arms with your stick,” Cohen explains—that’s the “slashing”—and though the rules don’t allow slashing the head, “if it isn’t a hard hit, they call it a ‘brush,’” he says. “You’re not supposed to push from behind, or hold people with your stick, or hit the arms, but you can hear the cracks when they do.” Those who ignore these proscriptions are sent off the field for 30 or 60 seconds, giving opponents a good opportunity to score by playing “man-up.”
Cohen’s older brother, Steven Cohen ’06, was a man-up specialist, a fine shooter who had eight goals and six assists last spring. The Cohen brothers (there is a younger brother, Jeffrey, a high-school junior and lacrosse attackman) grew up in Syosset, on Long Island; a lacrosse-playing uncle gave them their first sticks. “I always had a brother to play with,” Greg recalls. “It’s a real advantage. Steve paved the way—I wanted to be as good as he was, and he was good.”
Steve and Greg played for the Syosset High School team and then had three years at Harvard together. “Steve fills up a room—he’s a real talker,” says Anderson. “Greg is quieter. They were both so proud of each other’s accomplishments. Greg even had a little shrine to Steve on the top of his locker.” There was no voodoo involved in the shrine; Greg isn’t superstitious. “What the shrine did is remind people of Steve’s positive attitude, and the energy and enthusiasm he brought to the game every day,” says Greg. “It basically consists of a picture of Steve, a diagram of his favorite man-up play, a small steel I-beam—‘steel’ is the name of our man-up formation—and some scented candles.”
Steve now works in finance on Wall Street, and after graduating, Greg plans to rejoin him on that downtown field, shooting for a different kind of goal.