As students across campus left New Haven two weeks ago for spring break, the men’s lacrosse team was riding a high. With a top-10 national ranking and a perfect 5–0 record, things were looking up for the Bulldogs.
When students returned, No. 11 Yale sat at a disappointing 5–2, having suffered consecutive losses to Ivy foes Cornell and Princeton. This Saturday, the Bulldogs travel to Philadelphia to take on the Penn Quakers. They look to return to the win column and begin the slow march up the Ivy League standings in hopes of a postseason tournament berth.
“We were on a pretty high note coming out of our first five games, playing very strongly, but as we know, conference play is most important,” midfielder Jon Reese ’16 said. “I feel as though, as a team, we’re pretty confident with where we’re at right now.”
While Yale’s last two conference opponents sit high in the national rankings — No. 7 and 10, respectively — Penn looks to be a less daunting foe, having scuffled their way to a 3–5 record and a shared spot with Yale in the Ivy cellar at 0–2. Nonetheless, the Quakers remain dangerous, with a collection of talent that earned them a No. 13 preseason ranking.
“It’s a really competitive league with a lot of perennial powerhouses … that have been really good for a long time,” midfielder Michael Keasey ’16 said. “The league is definitely tough and everybody gives each other their best shot.”
The Quakers are led by junior attackman Nick Doktor, who has amassed 11 goals, 24 assists and 20 ground balls, the latter two of which lead the team. Stopping his offensive dominance will be key to a successful evening for the Bulldogs, but Penn wields numerous additional dangerous scoring weapons.
“Penn has a really well-balanced offense, and they have a couple guys at attack and midfield that can beat their guy and score,” defenseman Mike Quinn ’16 said. “This week has been really focusing about fundamentals and that way, once we play an offense like that, we can really lock it down.”
The Quakers particularly rely on senior midfielder Joe McCallion, who leads the team with 18 goals and is second to Doktor with seven assists and 18 ground balls. McCallion ranks 10th in the Ivy League in points per game and has been especially successful on the man advantage, ranking fifth in the conference with four man-up goals.
Doktor and teammates have been forced to step up this year and fill the shoes of a strong 2014 senior class. Last year’s Quaker seniors included among their ranks a first-team All-Ivy goalie, two All-Ivy defensemen and a first-team All-Ivy midfielder.
As is to be expected with such significant back-end losses, the Quakers have especially struggled to prevent goals. Penn has surrendered 44 goals in its last three games, all against ranked teams and all resulting in defeat.
The Quakers’ seeming futility on the defensive side bodes well for the struggling Yale offense. After averaging 14 goals per game in their first four games, the Bulldogs have scored a combined 26 in their past three contests, two of which resulted in losses and the other a tight overtime win over Fairfield.
“Against both Cornell and Princeton, we tried to do a little too much,” Keasey said. “We really watched film critically and refocused on trying to be as good and as efficient as we were in those first couple games this season.”
While attackman Conrad Oberbeck ’15 has continued his stellar season, the rest of the Bulldog attack has failed to produce with consistency. In the past few games, Yale has struggled both to work the ball into position for an open shot and to capitalize on those opportunities with pinpoint accuracy.
On the defensive end, goalie Eric Natale ’15 has turned in a rough senior campaign thus far, ranking last among Ivy starters in both save percentage and saves per game. Thanks to the stellar Elis defensive personnel, though, Natale and the Bulldogs lead the conference in goals allowed per game.
This weekend, the Bulldogs and their supporters hope — and expect — to see a return to the winning ways of the team’s early-season streak. Saturday’s contest seems easy to point out as a major potential turning point on the schedule. With two more unranked opponents in Sacred Heart and Brown on deck before finishing with top-15 Brown and Albany and fierce rival Harvard, Saturday is the Bulldogs’ best chance to start a winning streak before entering the postseason stretch run.
Yale faces Penn on Saturday at Franklin Field in Philadelphia. The game begins at 5:30 p.m. and will be televised on Fox Sports 1.