At the beginning of the 2016 season, seniors on the Yale men’s lacrosse team said their performance in May would define the year. Just two games into the season’s final month, the Bulldogs now have both a championship and a top-five national seeding to show for it.
Yale (13–2, 5–1 Ivy) captured its fourth Ivy League tournament championship in the last five years this weekend after defeating Penn 7–6 in the semifinal and Harvard 14–9 in the final. The victories, along with a nearly perfect regular season that included a signature win over current top seed Maryland in February, earned Yale the No. 4 seed in the 16-team NCAA tournament and a Sunday matchup against Navy in the first round. The Bulldogs will play the Midshipmen at Reese Stadium at 5:15 p.m., marking their first NCAA tournament home game since 1990.
Playing two familiar foes in the conference tournament, which was hosted by Brown, Yale proved it could play multiple styles of lacrosse. The Bulldogs ground out a victory in a defensive battle against Penn (8–7, 4–2) on Friday and powered past Harvard (8–8, 3–3) on Sunday in an offensive explosion led by attackman Ben Reeves ’18, who scored four goals and tallied five assists on Sunday on the way to being named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.
“It’s very surreal, and [winning the Ivy League] has been one of our goals since day one as a team,” attackman Jack Tigh ’19 said. “It feels great to celebrate with all my teammates.”
However, the title was never a given for the Bulldogs. While Yale only trailed Penn for a little over a minute in the second quarter, the semifinal contest was tied for almost the entire fourth quarter until Reeves scored his third goal of the game on an extra-man laser into the top corner with 3:43 remaining. Yale’s defense closed out the game, preventing the Quakers from getting any quality looks on cage.
The semifinal was close in all facets of the game, with Penn barely outshooting Yale 33–31 and grabbing just one more ground ball than the Bulldogs. Yale goalie Hoyt Crance ’19 matched Penn’s Reed Junkin, who was recently named the Ivy League Co-Rookie of the Year, with 10 saves apiece.
In the second semifinal, Harvard handed then-No. 2 Brown its second loss of the season, forcing a No. 5 overall seed for the Bears in the national tournament. Although Ivy League Player of the Year Dylan Molloy scored five goals for Brown in the 13–12 loss, Harvard attackman Morgan Cheek put up the performance of the tournament, scoring nine goals on the night. Harvard goalie Robert Shaw made 15 saves to slow down Brown’s lethal attack, which tallied 14 goals against the Bulldogs in April.
Yale jumped out early in Sunday’s final, a rematch of the regular season finale eight days prior, as Reeves, midfielder Jason Alessi ’18 and attackman Jeff Cimbalista ’17 gave the Bulldogs a 3–1 lead early. However, Harvard quickly bounced back to tie the game at four late in the first quarter.
Reeves scored 46 seconds into the second quarter, but Harvard tied the game with a rare own goal by the Bulldogs off a chaotic scrum for a ground ball, though the score was eventually credited to Harvard attackman Devin Dwyer. Cheek gave the Crimson its first and only lead of the day with 11:52 to play in the quarter before Yale midfielder Michael Keasey ’16 closed out the half with two-straight goals, including one in which he ran the length of the field and sniped the net from afar as time expired.
Although Dwyer would tie the game at seven shortly after halftime, the Elis began to assert their will in the second half as Yale’s dominance in faceoffs and ground balls proved to be too much for the Crimson. The Bulldogs won 17 of 25 faceoffs on the day and scooped up 40 ground balls compared to just 24 for Harvard.
Reeves scored his third goal of the game before assisting Cimbalista on his second of the contest. A Crimson strike from Dwyer and Reeves’ fourth goal put the score at 10–8 entering the fourth quarter.
Attackman Joe Lang brought Harvard within one, but Keasey then scored the first of four straight goals by the Yale offense to close out the game.
The Bulldogs move on to host Navy (10–4, 7–1 Patriot) on Sunday, hoping to advance to the tournament quarterfinals for the first time since defeating Penn State in the 2013 first round. If Yale wins, it will face the winner of Brown and Johns Hopkins, a matchup in which Brown is favored.
“I definitely think winning this is good momentum for us going into the NCAA tournament, but now the stakes are much higher,” said midfielder Mike Bonacci ’16, who scored in the fourth quarter. “It is single elimination, so now is when we have to play like each game could be our last. I’m excited for what is to come but we have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Yale and Navy last faced off in the 1992 NCAA tournament first round, with the Bulldogs prevailing 9–3 before falling 17–8 to Syracuse. Navy has lost two of its last three games entering the NCAA tournament contest.