The Yale men’s lacrosse team entered the 2016 season with heightened expectations, receiving a No. 10 preseason ranking from Inside Lacrosse that projected the Bulldogs finishing second in the Ivy League. Now boasting the program’s best start since the 1990, Yale is making a case for top team in the country, let alone in the Ancient Eight.
Wins over Fairfield, Cornell and Princeton over spring break extended the now-No. 3 Elis’ perfect start to seven games, though Saturday’s victory over the Tigers was not an easy one. Despite trailing Princeton 6–5 early in the third quarter, Yale’s offense propelled the Bulldogs (7–0, 2–0 Ivy) to victory as the defense allowed its most goals in a game thus far this season.
“The defensive effort today was poor and definitely our worst showing of the year,” captain and defender Michael Quinn ’16 said. “The offensive guys bailed us out and put up some big numbers so we were able to stick out the win.”
The Yale offense started hot, scoring the first three goals of the contest. Midfielder Brendan Mackie ’19 scored on the team’s first possession of the game, less than a minute into the action at Reese Stadium. Long-stick midfielder Robert Mooney ’19 and attackman Ben Reeves ’18 added goals off failed clears by Princeton (1–5, 0–2 Ivy), demonstrating the Yale offense’s ability to pressure Princeton even during an afternoon in which the defense struggled. Princeton could only clear one of its five attempts under the pressure of Yale’s ride.
However, the Tigers responded with four of the next five goals to draw even in the second quarter. A bounce-shot into the lower corner by midfielder Jason Alessi ’18 gave the Bulldogs a 5–4 lead heading into halftime.
But that halftime advantage was short-lived. Two quick goals by Princeton midfielder Austin Sims gave the Tigers their first and only lead of the game at 6–5 with 13:33 remaining in the third quarter. While Princeton clung to the lead for over four minutes, Yale bounced back in the midst of the upset threat from the Tigers, who possess the second-worst overall record in the Ivy League.
“We wholeheartedly believe that if we focus on the details and our fundamentals and commit to the process that [head] coach [Andy] Shay has instilled in us that we will be able to overcome almost any obstacle we might face in a game,” said goalie Phil Huffard ’18, who made three saves against the Tigers.
Princeton’s Sims found himself open a few minutes later after giving his team the lead and fired a shot that barely missed the net. Yale defender Christopher Keating ’17 dove after the shot to ensure possession for the Bulldogs.
On the ensuing possession, midfielder Mike Bonacci ’16 drove from behind the net and scored to tie the game.
“Attacking from behind the net has always been a large part of my game,” Bonacci said. “I played attack in high school and was converted to midfield my freshman year here. I think that has allowed me to be effective up top and behind.”
Bonacci was not the only Bulldog effective below the goal in the third quarter. Attackman Jack Tigh ’19 also beat his man from behind the net and passed the ball to wide-open midfielder Michael Keasey ’16, who finished the play to tally his 13th goal of the season and push Yale back ahead.
Princeton notched an equalizer soon thereafter, but Reeves and Bonacci proceeded to score from behind the net on back-to-back possessions with Bonacci’s goal looking almost identical to his first. The two scores propelled Yale to a 9–7 lead, entering the fourth quarter.
The teams exchanged goals within a minute of each other before Sims scored his fourth goal of the game, top among all players in the game, to bring the Tigers within one at 10–9. On the next possession, Mackie carved through the defense and slipped a shot through the goalie’s legs. Mackie finished the day with two goals and led a big day for Yale’s freshman class. Between Mackie, Mooney, Tigh and midfielder Joe Sessa ’19, the freshman class tallied four goals and two assists.
“The freshmen’s performance was not a shock to the team,” Quinn said. “It’s indicative of how they play in practice. They’ve been big contributors since they stepped on campus. The older guys on the offense have taught them and brought them along.”
Despite the effort from the freshmen, a Princeton goal from midfielder Zach Courier closed the gap to one goal with 10:02 to play. Yale successfully held its 11–10 lead for the remainder of the game, as the Bulldogs maintained possession for much of that final stretch.
The Tigers had one final opportunity with 30 seconds remaining, but Yale’s offense pressured Princeton as the Tigers attempted to clear and forced them offside to end the game and secure the victory.
“This was our first one-goal game this year and it was great to see some kids respond well,” Bonacci said of his team, which had won its first six games by an average of 6.5 goals.
Besides the key performances from the freshmen and two goals from Bonacci himself, Reeves led all Bulldogs with three scores. Reeves also tallied an assist, bringing his team-best season totals to 20 goals and 16 assists.
Although Yale escaped with the victory, there were definite areas for improvement. The defense allowed goals on three of Princeton’s four extra-man situations, and the Bulldogs only picked up 27 of 57 ground balls.
“We’re not playing cohesively and communicating on the defensive end,” Quinn said. “Even though we’ve been winning we’ve got to keep getting better: offense, defense, facing off and goaltending.”
Nevertheless, Yale managed to finish its spring break unscathed. In the first contest against Fairfield, the Bulldogs took a 6–0 lead into halftime on the way to a painless 10–5 victory. Yale caused 17 turnovers while only committing five to win for the third time in four years against Fairfield.
The Ivy League opener against Cornell featured a much closer first half. The game was tied until attackman Jeff Cimbalista ’17 scored as time expired in the second quarter to give Yale a 7–6 lead. The Bulldogs did not look back in the second half as they scored four of the next five goals and finished with a 15–9 victory. Keasey and Reeves each scored four goals in the conference-opening victory.
The win over Princeton brought Yale to a tie at 2–0 atop the Ivy League with Penn. Brown, picked alongside Yale by many media outlets as a favorite to contend for the Ancient Eight title, is 1–0 in league play and currently ranked fourth in the nation.
Saturday’s game was the seventh-straight regular season meeting between Yale and Princeton that was decided by one goal.