The No. 11 Yale men’s lacrosse team led by six in the final minutes of last weekend’s Ivy clash against Brown, but it seemed as if nobody had told captain and defender Brian Pratt ’17. As a Bear attacker loaded up for a high-speed shot, Pratt launched into an all-out dive and blocked the shot before it could reach the Eli goaltender.
Pratt’s dive, even with victory secured, is emblematic of the culture grounded in effort and toughness that the Eli defense has developed under the guidance of assistant coach and defensive coordinator Andrew Baxter. With Yale well-positioned to capture its fifth Ivy League tournament title in six years, a defense decimated by graduation and injuries nevertheless continues to set the tone heading into the crucial month of May.
“I really just love playing for [Baxter] because of how great of a guy and role model he is,” Pratt said. “I want to work hard and get better because of how much he puts into this program and how much time he dedicates to helping each of us.”
Baxter displayed his commitment to the Yale lacrosse program and his players three weeks ago: While playing squash just days before the Bulldogs traveled to Penn, the assistant coach tore his left Achilles tendon. After missing a few days of practice to recover from surgery, Baxter still made the trip to Philadelphia with the team to witness the Ivy League matchup and support the Elis.
His dedication does not go unnoticed by his player. It extends from the field into his home, where Baxter invites his players over for pizza and wings before the start of each season.
“[Baxter] cares a lot about his players and legitimately cares for the game,” defender Jerry O’Connor ’18 said. “He’ll speak his mind to you and tell you when you’re playing well and when you’re not. He holds you to a higher standard.”
Baxter was no stranger to coaching elite defenses before arriving in New Haven. Between his three years as defensive coordinator at Drexel and four at Ohio State, Baxter’s defenses ranked top-10 in the nation in goals allowed four separate times.
However, Baxter was not always a defensive guru. The Rochester, New York native played offense in high school and his first coordinator job came on the offensive side, as he coached Drexel’s offense in 2004 and 2005. Baxter made the switch to defense in 2006, drawn by the personality of defenses, and never looked back. According to Baxter, his experience on the other side of the ball has helped him coach defense because from personal experience he knows how to annoy offensive players.
When Yale hired Baxter ahead of the 2013 season, the program was coming off of its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1992. In Baxter’s four full seasons, the program has grown into a national powerhouse — Yale won the Ivy League tournament and appeared in the NCAA tournament in three of those four years, rising as high as No. 1 in national rankings last season.
“[Baxter] is a flat-out genius when it comes to defensive schemes,” Pratt said. “We definitely have some core systems that we rely on, but he has a unique ability to craft each system to best fit a team or player we are trying to shut down.”
Yale’s defense ranked in the top-10 nationally during each of the championship seasons. Even in the disappointing 2014 campaign, in which the Bulldogs were knocked out in the semifinals of the conference tournament, Baxter’s defense ranked 11th in the nation, giving up just 8.5 goals per game.
And along with his signature aggressive style of defense, Baxter has also brought his love for the 10-man ride to Yale. The Bulldogs have seen immense success with their full court press this year; Dartmouth completed just 12 of 17 clears against the Elis while No. 17 Princeton completed only 15 of 21.
“Coach [Baxter] is, in my opinion, the top or one of the top defensive coordinators in college lacrosse,” head coach Andy Shay said. “Having known him for so long, I was convinced that he would mesh well with these types of players. He’s tough on them, but he’s a player’s coach as well, and it seems that Yale lacrosse players respond well to that style.”
After graduating four of his six starters from last season, Baxter faced an uphill battle heading into 2017. When Camyar Matini ’17, the most experienced defender on the roster, went down with a knee injury against Penn on April 1, Yale was forced to turn to its youth more than ever.
The 10.0 goals per game the Elis have surrendered this season are the worst statistically in Baxter’s tenure but hide an overachieving unit full of young stars in the making.
Never was the overachievement of this underrated group clearer than this past Saturday against Brown. Facing the nation’s fourth-best offense, the Yale defense ceded only 12 goals. The Bears scored just twice in the fourth quarter despite winning most of the final period’s faceoffs. Reigning national player of the year Dylan Molloy tallied just three goals and an assist against Yale, despite being guarded for most of the game by Aidan Hynes ’20, a freshman defender making just his fifth collegiate start.
However, the biggest test of the season for Yale’s defense comes this Saturday against No. 5 Albany. Although the Bulldogs have already faced four top-10 offenses this season in No. 2 Maryland, Villanova, Princeton and Brown, none compare to the Great Danes, who enter this weekend’s contest scoring a nation-best 15.9 goals per game.
Leading Albany is the country’s top scorer, attacker Connor Fields. But the Bulldogs remain unfazed, and with Baxter on the sidelines, there is little doubt of how the Eli defense will combat Albany’s lethal attack: with effort and toughness.
“Ground balls, diving for endlines, practice diving in front of shots … these are things you can control,” Baxter said. “Some people say you can’t coach toughness, but Coach Shay and I say you can.”
With just one Ivy game left to play, Yale has secured a share of the regular season conference title and will host the conference tournament May 5–7.