JANES: This season could be one of Yale’s most successful

This could be one of the best years in Yale sports history.

Tragedy and off-field issues have distracted from a year loaded with success and potential — and rightfully so — but with statements made, investigations underway and the facts as straight as anyone can hope to get them, it’s time to shift the focus back to the games.

Do so, and you’ll see what I mean: this really could be one of the best years in Yale sports history. And I’m not just saying that out of my sometimes unrealistic but always well-intended Yale-superfan optimism. The stats don’t lie.

In the 55 years since the Ivy League began play in sports other than football, Yale’s high-water mark for conference-championship success has been eight. The Bulldogs won eight titles in a single academic year twice in that span, once in the first season of Ancient Eight play, 1956-’57, once in the 1980-’81 season.

Yale has brought home seven titles in an academic year just four times in that nearly half-a-century span. The first came in the 1958-’59 year, the second in the 1978-’79 season, and the third in the 1989-’90 season. The fourth seven-win season was, you may be surprised to hear, last year.

Now, keep in mind that the first women’s Ivy League Championships were held in the 1973-’74 season, and the gravity of last year’s success grows. That year, the only women’s sport in competition was crew (title won by the now-incorporated Radcliffe), and it would take until the 1976-’77 season for even six women’s championships to be contested, when basketball, gymnastics, ice hockey, swimming and track and field were added to the mix.

Take that 1976-’77 year, then, as the first that the Ivy League Championships landscape began to resemble its current self, and last year’s success was, arguably, the fourth-best season in Yale’s history in the Ivy League.

Surprising? Perhaps. But only because last year’s success wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. The titles were spread among teams we expected to win (men’s ice hockey, volleyball) and teams we — rather unfairly — forget win so regularly (the squashes, golf teams, and so on). Women’s tennis’s run to a share of the Ivy title was certainly memorable, but not so improbable that anyone could be prompted to say Yale had overachieved. The Bulldogs’ historic success last year was the product of teams for whom success has become, quite simply, unsurprising.

As such, this success was likely underappreciated, and few people probably realize the unique position in which the athletic department finds itself this season.

From the title perspective, we’re ahead of last year’s pace. The field hockey team, which broke through after 30 years to claim its second title in school history, joined volleyball as fall, 2011 champions. By Feb. 7, 2011, Yale held one Ivy title. As of Feb. 8, 2012, we hold two.

Now I know what you’re thinking: that stat means nothing when there’s so much work to be done. And you’re right: projecting all of last year’s champions to repeat is perhaps not wise. But it’s not completely unrealistic.

Let’s go step-by-step starting with squash. The men’s team is currently ranked No. 1 nationally, and the women No. 2. Not No. 1 in the Ivy League — the country. Though the men dropped a somewhat surprising match to then-No. 3 Princeton last weekend, it’s important to note that All American superstar No. 2 Hywel Robinson ’13 was injured for that showdown, which caused some last-minute shifts in the Yale ladder heading into a tough road match. Either way, the loss means the Bulldogs need some help from Cornell and Columbia, Princeton’s final Ivy League opponents, if they’re to grab a conference title. Even if they don’t get that help, however, a national title is on the table, and that epic win over then-No.1-for-13-years Trinity will be remembered for many seasons to come.

The women are in better shape to repeat. Millie Tomlinson ’14 hasn’t lost a college match yet, and last year’s national individual champion keeps blowing through her competition, leading the undefeated Bulldogs into their toughest match of the season this weekend against No. 1 Harvard. The Crimson present the biggest obstacle between Yale and another Ivy League title, so this Sunday’s matchup at the Brady Squash Center will go along way towards determining whether or not the women’s squash team can add to this year’s title total.

Now, on to golf. On the men’s side, the Bulldogs return three of their top-four finishers at last year’s Ivy League Championships, where the team dominated the field by 20 strokes to take home the title. Admittedly, the player not returning is a big deal: 2010-’11 captain and All-Ivy pick Tom McCarthy ’11. But even without McCarthy, Yale closed out its fall season with an impressive seventh-place showing at the Northeast Invitational (four spots ahead of last year’s finish), bolstered by the solid play of William Davenport ’15. He turned in a strong fall for Yale, and should help ease the loss of McCarthy.

The women, too, lost a great force in their 2010-’11 captain, Alyssa Roland ’11, who was an individual Ivy League Champion as a sophomore. But the celestial sophomore duo of Seo Hee Moon, who has seven wins in her young career, and Sun Gyoung Park, Yale’s top finisher at the NCAA regional last year, should position the Bulldogs to make a run at another title. Harvard and Columbia have bolstered their rosters with some freshmen talent, but Yale will be a formidable opponent in its title defense.

Women’s tennis has reached its highest ranking of 2012 this week, No. 35, thanks in large part to an upset win over then-No. 21 Notre Dame and a near-miss against No. 10 Michigan. As scary as it is for the rest of the Ivy League, the Bulldogs look better than last year — and are still improving — which bodes well for their title prospects.

But beyond teams that won last season, there are others that could make a run at titles to push Yale to that eight-win mark or beyond in 2012. The men’s fencing team, for one, dropped a heartbreaking title match against Harvard last year by one point. The No. 10 Bulldogs get their chance at revenge this weekend as they host this year’s Ancient Eight Championships. Fencing is a sport to watch. The women have also been dominating of late, turning in convincing wins to build momentum into Saturday’s matches.

Men’s lacrosse is always a team to watch, especially considering it comes into the 2012 season ranked 13th in the Inside Lacrosse national poll. The Elis will feature two Major League Lacrosse Draftees this season — Greg Mahony ’12 and 2011 All-American Matt Gibson ’12 — who were drafted last weekend.

Yale baseball, which finished second in its division last year, will undoubtedly be hurt by the loss of a senior class that featured first baseman Trey Rallis ’11, last year’s Ivy League Player of the Year. But with a ton of talent in the freshmen class — particularly on the mound — and a lot of talented underclassmen in general, the Bulldogs could surprise some people in the Ivy League this year.

Oh, and look out for Yale softball: just saying …

Finally, it’s way too early to lose track of the winter sports just yet. Men’s basketball is just a game (okay, a win against No. 21 Harvard) out of first place, and gets another shot at the Crimson, albeit in Cambridge, Feb. 18. Win out, and the Elis will have a share in the Ivy crown and a playoff game with Harvard to decide the bid to the tourney.

At 4–2 in conference play, women’s basketball is right in the hunt as well. The team may need some help around the league to chase down 5–0 Princeton, but Harvard (4–1) is well within reach, especially considering the Bulldogs have another trip through the Ivies remaining.

Finally, there’s men’s hockey. Their quest for an Ivy League title, though bumpier than Yale fans, used to success, might be willing to tolerate, is far from over. The Bulldogs sit behind just two Ancient Eight teams entering this weekend: Harvard (four points up) and Cornell (nine points up). Yale plays both of those teams in its remaining schedule. Keep in mind that a win in either of those games makes up three points on either team, and the Bulldogs can still pull a title off. It’s not over for Yale hockey just yet.

In other words, look out for Yale sports in the coming months, and start counting the Ivy titles as they come in. We’re ahead of schedule in some ways, behind in others, but nevertheless poised to make another push at Yale conference title history. And regardless of how many Championships come to New Haven in 2012, the fact that Bulldog teams are anywhere near duplicating last year’s historic success reveals a trend that means eight won’t be Yale’s highest title total for long.

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