John Harvard's Journal
Field hockey goalie Ellie Shahbo’s quiet dominance
Look up Crimson field hockey goalkeeper Ellie Shahbo ’22 [’23] and you’ll find a flurry of improbable athletic feats: a fully extended back-handed stick-save to clinch a win over Princeton, a diving stop to shut out the University of New Hampshire, three straight penalty-shootout saves to upset second-ranked Michigan. The highlights are typical for the first-team All-Ivy keeper, who finished the fall 2021 season with 10 shutouts and led the nation in goals-against average (.44) and save percentage (.860). But Shahbo would frankly love to end each game with the most boring highlight reel possible: “If I don’t have to make a save,” she says, “that’s a great day.”
For Shahbo, a neuroscience concentrator who lives in Mather House, a defensive stop begins well before an opponent gets off a shot. From the back line, she’s in constant communication with her defense, closing gaps in coverage and alerting them to opponents’ runs upfield. This dialogue is the foundation for what Shahbo calls a “whole-team defense”—where everyone works in tandem to stifle an attack. It has succeeded. Throughout 2021, Harvard allowed the third fewest shots in the NCAA and Shahbo gave up just eight goals in 17 regular-season games—the lowest mark in the country. She insists that it’s her teammates who make her look good, but Crimson head coach Tjerk van Herwaarden is happy to brag on his goalie’s behalf. “I’ve been exposed to some absolutely top-quality goalkeepers in international hockey,” he says, “but I’ve never seen anyone who can stay so poised in goal and make it seem so effortless.”
Shahbo was uninterested in sports as a young child. But after she moved from Scotland to Surrey, England, she found that field hockey was mandatory. When her new coach asked for goalie volunteers, the nine-year-old raised a tentative hand, vaguely considering the benefits of a position that would require minimal running. Her debut performance was exceptional in that, unlike the othervolunteerwho ran behind the goal to dodge incoming shots, she remained planted in the net. “So that was the deciding moment,” Shahbo reflects.
This lack of fear earned her a spot on the top team in her age group and jump-started a promising career. The coach quickly recruited her to the Surbiton Hockey Club, where she competed alongside talented teammates and defended against girls several years older. She soon learned the importance of fundamentals from the club’s goalie coach, Chris Bristow. Between the ages of nine and 13, she spent thousands of hours doing muscle-memory repetitions—like kicking a ball through a small gap between cones 200 times in a row in her “kickers,” bulky foam guards that cover cleats. “I guess I just got really technically clean and sharp very quickly,” Shahbo says. “And was very ahead of the goalkeepers around me for a long time, just because he pushed me through those drills.”
As one of the club’s few goalies, she was thrown into two or three games each weekend, playing for and against teams of varying age and skill level. Shahbo sought balance in the chaos. She developed an approach that combined the aggressiveness of goalkeepers who charge toward incoming attackers and the more reserved style of those who stay in the net and try to block shots. “The main thing was consistency and doing what’s average really well,” she says. “Saving a brilliant shot doesn’t make up for letting in a really easy, average goal.”
Staying steady also required technical mastery. Kicking the ball accurately—much less flashy than a diving stick-save—was often the key to neutralizing a strong attack. Instead of deflecting a shot toward incoming attackers, Shahbo sent it parallel to the baseline, away from the opposition. She learned to discern the precise movement of the ball by watching its dimples. The better sense she had of its spin and speed, the better she could re-direct a shot by foot or stick. The consistency and poise in net led to several high-profile appearances: by the end of high school, she had played for the British U16, U18, and U21 national teams.
Shahbo applied only to Harvard and committed as a high-school junior. Coach van Herwaarden was surprised that a recruit with such effortless technical mastery and poise agreed to come, but she appreciated his focus on the program’s future while other coaches emphasized their pasts. (He jokes that he didn’t really have much of a choice; Harvard’s 2016 Ivy League title was its first since 2003.) She also appreciated the opportunity to concentrate in the sciences and follow a pre-medical track.
The American style of play was faster and more direct than that in England. There, teams progressed gradually upfield, mounting a pass-heavy charge. In the United States, athletic attackers often tried to take on entire defenses on their own. “The girls would shoot from just about everywhere,” she says. “It didn’t change what I physically had to do. It just changed how I had to communicate to the girls.”
Shahbo adapted quickly. In her first start versus Maryland in the fall of 2018, she saved 10 shots—the most by a Harvard goalie since 2015. Harvard finished the season with an 11-2 record and Shahbo earned a first-team All-Ivy selection. But most special to Shahbo was the opportunity to compete with teammates she admired. “I kind of lost my love for field hockey for a while because I didn’t have that group of girls that I could connect with,” she says, describing the struggle of playing with several different teams and fighting teammates for opportunities in her pre-collegiate career. “I remember freshman year, I turned to my parents at the end of it, and I was like, ‘Wow, I really love field hockey again.’” Harvard won the Ivy League title, too.
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The Crimson finished second to Princeton in 2019 and then missed a season due to COVID-19. Shahbo returned to the field in 2021 eager to compete with her teammates. Facing Princeton with the Ivy League title on the line, she blocked all three Tiger shots in penalty shootouts to clinch an overtime victory. A few weeks later, in shootouts against Michigan during the NCAA quarterfinals, she knew what to do; before the game, she had made flashcards breaking down the opposing players’ offensive tendencies. She blocked the first two shots, and then, anticipating an opponent’s drive around her left side, blocked the final one. Her teammates scored on all three opportunities, and the Crimson earned its first NCAA semifinals appearance in history. They finished the season 17-2 after a loss to Northwestern, the best mark in Harvard history.
After graduating this coming December 2022, Shahbo will take a year and a half off before entering medical school—another setting where flashcards will pay off. How field hockey will land on her list of priorities is to be determined. Now eligible for the U.S. national team, she will consider how future playing opportunities fit with her long-term goals. As always, she’ll try to seek balance.