Yale athletics has performed well at the national level this year, with the men’s squash team winning a national championship and the men’s basketball team upsetting Baylor in the NCAA Tournament First Round. On Monday, yet another Eli team gained major national recognition.
The Yale men’s lacrosse team (7–0, 2–0 Ivy) was named the No. 1 team in the nation in both major national polls this week, marking the first No. 1 ranking in program history and the first time an Ivy League program reached the top of the polls since Princeton in 2009.
The Elis have opened their season 7–0, their best start since 1990, but players expressed higher aspirations for their campaign than just a strong beginning.
“Quite frankly, the ranking doesn’t mean much to us and won’t have any effect on what we do,” midfielder Mike Bonacci ’16 said. “A midseason ranking has never been what we strive for. At the end of the day, we want to be playing our best lacrosse come May, and we have a lot of work to do between now and then.”
Nevertheless, the Bulldogs have had about as good a start to the season as they could have wanted. They have won their games by an average of 5.17 goals, which is the fourth-highest scoring margin in the nation.
Most impressive among Yale’s first seven games was an 8–5 home win over now-No. 5 Maryland, the team that knocked the Elis out of the first round of last season’s NCAA Tournament. The 2015 Bulldogs also beat the Terrapins in the regular season en route to a 5–0 start to the season, but they were soon tripped up by two consecutive Ivy League losses. This year, Yale has continued to take care of business, beginning its conference campaign with wins over Cornell and Princeton. Captain and defender Michael Quinn ’16 noted that a mentality shift has been key to that consistency.
“We’ve worked our way here by sticking together through adversity on and off the field and worrying about getting better each day instead of focusing on the big picture,” Quinn said.
Quinn has been a leader of one of the nation’s stoutest defenses. The Bulldogs are third in the nation in scoring defense, only giving up an average of 6.86 goals per game. Defender Christopher Keating ’17 leads the team with 23 ground balls picked up and 12 caused turnovers.
By pressuring their opposition, the Bulldogs have limited the shots opponents put on net, allowing goalie Phil Huffard ’18 to develop confidence in his first collegiate starts. Huffard credited his team’s focus in practice for its early success.
“I believe that it is our team’s attention to detail, not just on game days, but in everything we do that allows us to focus on the task at hand, whether that be getting a stop on the defensive end of the field or scoring a crucial goal,” Huffard said.
Although the defense has primarily led the Bulldogs, the offense has had no problem scoring crucial goals. Yale has scored at least 10 goals in all but one of its games. Reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year and attackman Ben Reeves ’18, whose 2.86 goals per game average leads Yale, is fourth nationally with 5.14 points per game.
The sophomore is not the only underclassman finding the back of the net this season — Yale’s freshman class has totaled 20 goals in seven games. Attackman Jack Tigh ’19 leads all rookies with five goals and five assists, while long-stick midfielder Robert Mooney ’19 has scored two goals and defended with poise in a new starting role.
“The freshmen came in as a talented group of individuals, but they have really bought into the program and the process and have worked hard all offseason,” Bonacci said. “I think their extraordinary work ethic coupled with great leadership on the team has allowed for their class to contribute in a huge way for us.”
With the new contributions this season, the Bulldogs have won games in a variety of ways. They beat St. John’s 13–8 after trailing 7–1 with 11 minutes to play in the third quarter. Four days later, they showed their ability to establish an early lead and hold it when they took a 6–0 advantage into halftime against Fairfield on their way to a 10–5 win.
Despite the success, the road gets harder for the Bulldogs. Before they can think about the NCAA Tournament in May, they host a Penn team this Saturday at noon that is 2–0 in Ivy League play. They also face No. 3 Brown and No. 10 Albany in April.
If Yale can close out the year with a bid to the national tournament, they will strive to be the first Yale team to make the Final Four since the 1990 team, which started 14–0 and finished the season 16–2.
The Yale men’s lacrosse team has never won a national championship in the NCAA era.