Despite a recent rough patch in their Ivy League play, the men’s lacrosse team is poised to improve from last year’s 6-8 season after showing potential in early games.

The Bulldogs (3-2, 0-2 Ivy) hope to reverse their recent skid and get back on track as they finish the next eight games of the regular season. Under the leadership of fourth-year head coach Andy Shay, the squad raced to 3-0 against non-conference opponents in early March. Although they fell to Ivy League foes Penn (4-3, 1-1) and No. 1 Cornell (6-0, 1-0) during the second week of their spring break campaign, the Elis are still optimistic about their abilities.

“We are looking to succeed, get a bunch of wins and hopefully make it into the [NCAA] Tournament,” captain Chris Kempner ’07 said. “But most of all we’re just looking to play well every time we get on the field.”

Coming off victories over Holy Cross and UMass, the Bulldogs headed to the West Coast on March 10, where they beat Air Force 12-9 at the First Four tournament in San Diego. The following weekend, the Elis traded their sunglasses for warmer clothes in snowy Philadelphia, where they were dealt their first defeat by Penn in a bitter double-overtime battle. The 10-9 loss knocked Yale out of the national rankings, into which the squad had broken for the first time since April 2005, claiming the No. 18 and No. 17 spots in the March 5 and March 12 USILA polls.

“We learned a tough lesson at Penn,” Kempner said. “Even though we can fight as hard as we did, it takes execution and maybe a lucky goal in overtime to win. Hopefully we will move on and learn from each of the losses to get a couple of wins in the next few games.”

But the most difficult lesson was yet to come, as the Elis returned to New Haven to face No. 1 Cornell on Saturday. Although the Bulldogs managed play with the Big Red for most of the first quarter — the two teams were deadlocked at 2-2 heading into the ninth minute of the game — the heavily favored Cornell squad ignited a 13-goal run with 5:14 left in the first and led 14-3 by halftime. The Elis scored the same number of goals as Cornell in the second half, but they could not close the gap, succumbing in a 19-8 final.

“We have to fight harder and hopefully we can be better,” Shay said. “It’s going to take a commitment from some guys to play better and to play harder.”

The Bulldogs certainly possess the talent to rack up wins this season, as they return a solid core of veterans — including three of last year’s top four point producers — and add several talented freshmen into the mix.

Attacker Tyler Casertano ’08, last season’s Offensive MVP, sits atop the Eli scoring chart yet again this season, with 19 points. Last season, his 28 assists ranked him seventh in the NCAA, and he has already demonstrated his playmaking abilities with 12 assists in his first five games. Casertano is joined by teammate Kyle Washabaugh ’08, who finished just behind him in points last season. Washabaugh has 10 goals so far and helped spark two three-goal Eli runs against Air Force and Penn. Midfielder Kempner rounded out the top four scorers in 2006 and has already notched six goals this year. The trio will receive strong support from Jonathan Koenig ’08, Will Gano ’09 and brothers Ben Fuchs ’07 and Matt Fuchs ’10.

The Bulldogs also boast returning all-around athlete Mike Karwoski ’09, who wasted no time trading his hockey skates for cleats, netting a goal in the second minute of his season debut against Air Force. Although he missed the first two games for the hockey playoffs, Karwoski has since climbed into the fifth-leading scorer position and posted a career-high four goals and two assists at Penn. Rookie attacker Brendan Gibson ’10 has made a similarly flawless transition into the starting lineup with 13 goals and was named Ivy League Rookie of the Week on March 14 for his four against Air Force, which made the difference in the 12-9 game.

At face-off, the Elis have relied on Gregory Duboff ’08 to fill the shoes of Dan Kallaugher ’06. Kallaugher, a 2006 first team All-New England and second team All-Ivy selection, was ranked as high as the No. 2 face-off player in the nation. But Duboff, who took 32 face-offs last season, has stepped up to the challenge, winning 66 of 110 so far to earn his own No. 2 ranking, Shay said.

Well-seasoned players Pat Grimm ’08, Matt Aronson ’09 and Mark Schlam ’09 will continue to anchor the Bulldog defense this year. Newcomer Nick Tsouris ’10 will also be an asset as a defensive midfielder, joining veterans Dave Levy ’07, Russell Sprole ’07 and James Rump ’07.

And between the pipes the Bulldogs could not be stronger. Goalie George Carafides ’08, who has started every game in his career, averaged 11.8 saves per game in 2006, the third-best in the Ivy League. Although Carafides rarely steps off the field, the Elis also have confidence in backup goalies Joe Costa ’08, who had eight saves in relief against Cornell, and first-year walk-on David Atlas ’08.

In addition to individual talent, the Elis attributed much of the squad’s early success to chemistry between players and their team mentality — something they will look to recreate as they face Hartford and No. 9 Princeton this week.

“The team has a lot more chemistry this year than it has in past years,” Washabaugh said after the UMass win. “That in itself is really promising for the season.”

And while hopes of an Ivy League Championship and a trip to the NCAA Tournament are long-term goals for the team every season, in the short term the Bulldogs will set their sights on one game at a time.

“We are just going to go out and do our best each time we play, and hopefully things will fall into place,” Kempner said.