In 1991, the majority of players on the current men’s soccer team were probably just beginning to kick a ball around their backyards. Now, 14 years since the last Yale Ivy League Championship, those kids are the ones bringing the Elis back to the top.
Following a Dartmouth-Brown tie earlier in the day, the Bulldogs (10-3-4, 5-1-1 Ivy) earned a share of the league crown with a gritty 1-0 win at Princeton (6-8-3, 3-3-1) Saturday to close out the regular season. Not only did the Elis capture their first title in over a decade, but they also finished the season with their lowest loss total since 1986.
The Yale soccer program has seen its fair share of talented players, but head coach Brian Tompkins said it took a special group to accomplish this feat.
“Clearly this team has distinguished itself not just with its talent, but perhaps more so with its spirit and belief, and its willingness to concentrate on the important things and forget all the distractions,” Tompkins said.
As has been the case all season long, Yale’s suffocating defense paved the way for the Bulldog victory. The backfield, led by a spectacular performance from defender Jake Miller ’07, was able to shut down a dangerous Princeton attack that featured reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Darren Spicer.
For a while it seemed Princeton’s defense had also stepped up its game, keeping the match scoreless into the second half. But 15 minutes into the second frame, forward Gage Hills ’07 proved once again why he is the irreplaceable cog in Yale’s offensive machine. Usually the one to start an attack and to set up someone else’s goal, this time Hills found himself on the receiving end of a beautiful play.
Defender Jordan Rieger ’07 flashed his offensive touch with a perfect pass to forward Alex Munns ’07 deep in Princeton territory. Munns dribbled down the near sideline, looked up and sent a cross to a streaking Hills, who deflected it in past Princeton keeper Bobby Guelich.
“The goal was a magnificent way to finish [the season],” Tompkins said. “It was a classic Gage Hills goal. Since the Penn game, he’s found another gear, and he’s come up big in the past few weeks for us.”
That was all the scoring goalkeeper Erik Geiger ’08 and the Yale defense would need. The sophomore from Chatham, N.J., finished with three saves and earned his fourth shutout of the season, also the Bulldogs’ sixth as a team.
With the clock winding down and the win secure, the Yale bench erupted in excitement as Tompkins informed them of the Brown-Dartmouth tie. Tompkins, who knew about the tie before the start of the game, said he wanted to keep the news a secret to avoid distracting a dialed-in Bulldogs squad.
“I asked myself before the game if they were going to be better off with the news or if it would change the goal of the game,” Tompkins said. “And the answer was no, we had to win no matter what. I think any news would’ve been a distraction.”
Although Brown, Dartmouth and Yale have finished with identical 5-1-1 records in league play, Dartmouth has earned the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the College Cup by virtue of head-to-head tiebreakers. Now the Bulldogs must wait until Monday when tournament pairings are announced to find out if they secured an at-large bid. While nothing is decided yet, Yale’s already strong claim to a postseason berth was made even stronger by Saturday’s events.
But for the time being, talk around the clubhouse concerns Yale’s long-awaited ascension into the Ivy soccer elite.
“Coach put it really well when he said we didn’t just win the league for ourselves, but we did it for all the past alumni who were and still are part of the program,” forward Josh Block ’07 said. “And we did it for the future, too, by setting a high bar for what we can achieve. I think this is a way to show everybody that we have what it takes to be a dominant team and a great program.”
Senior defender Jon Skalecki ’06 said the achievement was the perfect way to (perhaps) close a memorable career at Yale.
“We’ve had up and down seasons since I’ve been here,” he said. “We’ve had good teams in the past that couldn’t quite do it. So it’s just kind of fitting … given the roller-coaster career that [the seniors] have had here.”
With Saturday’s triumph, the Yale soccer program seems light years away from last season’s campaign, which saw the team stumble to a 0-6 start from which it never fully recovered. Entering this year, many believed the Bulldogs, who lost key seniors from the 2004 season, would be commencing a slight rebuilding period.
Tompkins relied on a talented but inexperienced freshman class and a first-time starter in keeper Geiger to immediately carry the bulk of the playing responsibilities. The inexperience showed at first: The Bulldogs had trouble holding onto leads late in games and sputtered to three consecutive 1-1 ties to start the season. But the rookies matured rapidly and combined with a battle-tested junior class to form a well-balanced core. Even the mid-season loss of captain Shannon Brooks ’06, not to mention heartbreaking losses to Farleigh Dickinson and Boston College, could not derail a cohesive and determined Yale squad.
“We had a lot of new guys that could come in and contribute right away,” midfielder James Stewart ’07 said. “And as they adjusted quickly we formed a really tight-knit group of guys. The team dynamic was spectacular, and it transferred to success on the field.”
The Bulldogs answered all the questions, overcame all the challenges, and can now look back on a memorable regular season as the Ivy League champs. Even if Yale does not receive an at-large bid, the Elis have more than enough reason to be proud of this season.
“If we get the bid, it would obviously be a wonderful embellishment on what has already been a great season,” Tompkins said. “But if we don’t get in, we can still look back and feel pretty good about what we have accomplished.”