Class Day and Commencement will undoubtedly be filled with references to small milestones and achievements that set the class of 2002 apart from all the others that have come and gone through New Haven.
Here’s one more for the history books: this year’s graduating class is the first in Yale history to have seen Ivy League Championship seasons in Yale’s three major spectator sports: ice hockey, football, and, in the wake of this year’s thrilling run, basketball.
“It’s remarkable we’re proud of it and they’ve set the standard,” said athletic director Tom Beckett. “We’re very proud of the accomplishments of this class and we want to build on their achievements.”
It all started innocently enough just over three years ago in the winter of 1999, when this year’s graduates were in the second half of their freshman year. A powerful hockey team, coming off 1998’s Ivy League and ECAC Championships, was once again on the cusp of an Ivy League title heading into the second to last weekend of the regular season.
That weekend road trip to Dartmouth and Vermont looked less than promising, however, as the Elis had never swept the two travel partners, having gone 3-10-1 against them over most of the 1990’s.
A win over Dartmouth was necessary for the Bulldogs to clinch at least a share of the Ivy title with Princeton. Without the win, Yale could achieve the tie only with the help of a Princeton loss. Incidentally, that weekend also had ECAC implications–beating Vermont could help secure home ice advantage for Yale in the playoff quarterfinals.
A scoreless tie in the pivotal Dartmouth game was finally broken with a shorthanded Yale goal followed by an insurance score with the second period winding down. In the end, strong defense and stingy goaltending held the Big Green to only one goal, and the Elis captured the game–and a piece of the Ivy League crown.
“We were coming off a phenomenal year in which we had won the ECAC and Ivy championships, and were worried about large graduation losses,” said head coach Tim Taylor, who pointed to the Dartmouth game as the pivotal one in the Eli’s Ivy League quest that year. “As freshmen, this year’s graduating group played important roles as first year players.”
Goaltender Dan Lombard ’02, who played under All-ECAC goalie Alex Westlund ’99 that year, noted that despite not logging a lot of minutes their freshman year, his classmates had an impact on the program.
“That’s an important part of a championship, that some people need to step in and not be heralded kids and just do their roles without getting a lot of credit,” he said. “When our class had a chance to do that, we did.”
Two years later, those players were able to play a more prominent role in their team’s success. In the 2000-2001 season, Lombard boasted a .881 save percentage, winning 14 games including one shutout. Forward Luke Earl ’02, who was this season’s captain, tallied 27 points including 12 in just three games, and forward Jason Noe ’02 recorded 12 points.
“We’ve always been a very hard-working class,” Earl said. “We contributed most with our work ethic and good team players.”
Midway through the season, the Elis faced No. 10 Cornell in a game that had to be moved to the New Haven Coliseum due to ice problems at Ingalls Rink. Lombard and the Bulldogs responded well, converting a scoreless game into an overtime win with Nick Deschenes’ ’03 deflection in overtime. The victory made Taylor the winningest coach in Yale history and gave the Bulldogs the momentum necessary to remain atop the Ivies.
In the final regular season game, Earl and Ryan Steeves ’04 tallied third period goals to rally the Elis from a 3-1 deficit against Brown. The game ended in a tie, clinching the third Ivy title for the hockey team in four years.
“Collectively, [the seniors] are laden with as much character as any group of seniors I have coached,” Taylor said. “They have led this team and program beautifully, and have contributed so much to the Yale hockey program, both on and off the ice.”
While the Bulldogs did not make it four this year, the leadership of Earl and Lombard coupled with the veteran savvy of other seniors Noe and Spencer Rodgers brought the Elis into the final game of the season with a chance to qualify for the ECAC playoffs. It was only fitting that the final senior, Rob Mutter, was the hero of the game with his winning goal that propelled the Elis into a postseason appearance.
“They will be remembered as a group of dedicated and motivated athletes, who always put the team’s interests first, and who, in their senior year, put the team on their collective shoulders and took it as far as it could possibly go,” Taylor said.
The second piece of the trifecta dates back again to 1999–this time, the class of 2002’s sophomore fall. The first game of the season, a home opener against Brown, began well but ended in disaster for the Elis.
After scoring a touchdown with 14 seconds remaining in the game to narrow Yale’s lead to 24-23, Brown was unable to convert the game-tying extra point, which was blocked by Yale. But the Bears recovered the ball, threw a lateral, and ran it over the endline to stun the Bulldogs 25-24.
“We knew we couldn’t lose another game like that,” said defensive back Ray Littleton ’02. “The rest of the season we had our backs to the wall.”
Head coach Jack Siedlecki, who would go on to be named New England Coach of the Year that season, points to the following week’s contest against Valpariso, in which the Bulldogs exploded for 48 points, as the turning point of the season.
“To come back the next week showed a lot of team and individual character,” he said.
Yale did not look back after that, crushing Dartmouth, Columbia and Cornell and defeating Princeton and Penn in two and four point victories, respectively. The season, climactically, came down to The Game, held at the Yale Bowl in front of 52.484 onlookers. There had not been that many people filling the Bowl since 1989, the last time the Elis captured the Ivy League crown.
A 3-0 lead for the Bulldogs after one quarter quickly vanished into a 14-3 Cantab lead, setting up a classic back-and-forth contest that would become one of the most storied finishes in Yale football history.
To come back from their biggest deficit of the season, the Bulldogs relied on quarterback Joe Walland ’01, who had been in the hospital only hours before with tonsillitis and a 103-degree fever.
He stepped up to the challenge, setting up receiver Tommy McNamara ’01 for a touchdown that narrowed the Crimson’s lead to 14-10. At the start of the fourth quarter, he followed that performance with a 28-yard pass to Jake Fuller ’00 to put the Bulldogs up 17-14.
The Cantabs made things interesting when they responded by rushing for a touchdown and then grabbing an interception with 4:51 remaining in the game–a move that seemed to end the Elis’ hopes of winning The Game and the title.
But somehow, Walland connected with tight end Eric Johnson ’01, who is now a member of the San Francisco 49ers. With only 29 seconds remaining, Walland capped a substantial drive with what came to be known as The Catch–a diving, reaching reception by Johnson that gave the Bulldogs the lead, The Game, and a tie with Brown for the Ivy League title. It was Yale’s first since 1989.
Siedlecki said that each year, the team has two goals: winning the Ivies and winning The Game, and that the class of 2002 did both.
“I hope every class we graduate here can say they won an Ivy title and beat Harvard three times,” he said. “That may not be doable year in and year out, but this class has raised the bar for the teams that follow them.
And, according to Littleton, doing so was immensely rewarding.
“It was one of the best experiences at Yale for me,” he said. “It was so fun to see everybody in the school really care and support the team. The fans rushed the field and kind of mobbed up on us afterwards, and you really felt appreciated–like it was worth sacrificing all that time.”
That would not be the last time Yale fans could rush the field–or court–after a victory. This year, Yale basketball fans found themselves doing just that, which, judging by Yale’s recent basketball history, seemed unthinkable.
When head coach James Jones took over as head coach following the 1998-1999 season, the basketball program seemed in disarray. Former coach Dick Kuchen had been on losing teams for seven straight years before his resignation, which came on the heels of an all-time low 4-22 record. But three years later, things had completely changed.
“Over the past three years the program has made a remarkable turn around, and it should continue for years to come,” said guard Chris Leanza ’03, who will be the team captain next season. “The coaches and players know what it takes to be successful and won’t settle for anything less.”
Devoid of any seniors but armed with a solid recruiting class and a host of strong juniors and sophomores, the team began to raise eyebrows and pique interest with early season victories over Penn State and Army, but faltered in the Poinsettia Holiday Classic, losing to Gardner Webb and Macalester.
Jones pointed to the next game, a 68-65 victory over Clemson, as one of the turning points of the season. Edwin Draughan ’05 poured in 16 points, a preview of his season in which he would lead the Elis in scoring. In addition, Matt Minoff ’04
“Winning the game down at Clemson was important because we played really poorly up until that point,” Jackson said.
From there, Yale was well on its way to its Ivy League title, which it shared with Princeton and Penn. Heading into the pivotal weekend of February 8 and 9, where Penn and Princeton were heading to New Haven, the Bulldogs had won five of six Ivy contests, falling only to Brown in a 82-87 game.
With the John J. Lee Ampitheater packed with a capacity crowd, the Bulldogs stunned the two traditional Ivy basketball powerhouses, defeating the Quakers 83-78 before besting Princeton 60-50. After each win, the fans rushed the court, and an atmostphere of excitement had officially been established. The hype grew as Yale went on to defeat Cornell and Columbia on the road to bring its Ivy record to 9-1 and draw nationwide attention on ESPN and in Sports Illustrated.
“The team was 7-20 my freshman year and we were 21-11 this past, so the most obvious change is success,” said captain Ime Archibong ’03. “Beyond the stats, I think we now have a groups of guys who all believe in and care about the team and it’s success.”
With droves of Yalies traveling by car and bus to Princeton for the much-talked-about rematch with the Tigers and the Quakers. At that point, the Elis were alone atop the league, and controlled their own destiny. A win over both teams would have given Yale an automatic share of the title, and even a weekend split would probably have assured them a piece.
As it was, the Bulldogs fell flat, unable to find the rhythm and flow that had been their trademark all season, and were beaten soundly by Princeton before falling in a heartbreaking manner to Penn after having led for the first 37 minutes of the game.
With final weekend wins over Dartmouth and Harvard, Yale had to await the outcome of the Princeton-Penn game, and the Bulldogs could do nothing but sit and watch, which is what they literally did. The entire team traveled to a booster’s house in Orange, Conn to watch the game via satellite, and when Penn defeated Princeton (score) it meant a three-way tie for the crown.
The Elis wasted no time in celebrating, returning to New Haven to cut down the basketball nets, as is traditional.
“It felt great,” Jones said of the championship. “The kids worked real hard and to go and accomplish that in our third year–it makes you feel really good.”
The following weeks were a flurry of activity, as the three co-champions underwent a three-way playoff to determine who would get the Ivy League’s automatic berth to the NCAA tournament. Yale defeated Princeton but lost to Penn, but was awarded an NIT berth and defeated Rutgers 67-65 for Yale’s first postseason victory ever. In the end, the Bulldogs fell to Tennessee Tech in the second round, but did so in front of a record number of home fans.
“This year was really successful because every member of the team contributed significantly in every game,” said guard Scott Gaffield ’04. The freshmen fit in easily, and the older players each found a role to play.”
History was made weeks before that postseason win, however, with the completion of the Ivy League Championship triple crown for the class of 2002 that began in their freshman spring and was capped off in their senior fall. Along the way, the class has witnessed various Ivy League championships in (sports), but they have made their mark by being the first class in Yale history to see Ancient Eight supremacy in the three major specatator sports of ice hockey, football, and now, basketball.