Matthew Mister

While college basketball owns the quickly-approaching month of March, May brings with it a similar excitement.

May is the month in which the Yale men’s lacrosse team has won the last two Ivy League Tournament championships. It is also the month in which the Bulldogs have been knocked out of the first round of the NCAA tournament the last two years. Ranked as the No. 8 team in the nation at the onset of the 2017 season, this year’s Elis look destined for more May drama.

Yale returns most of its offensive playmakers from last year, including attacker and Tewaaraton finalist Ben Reeves ’18. However, after losing three of their four starting long-poles from their 2016 roster, the Bulldogs will need fresh faces to step up against ranked opponents, road challenges and the gauntlet of Ivy League competition.

“We’ve got a lot of new faces and a lot of new guys so we’re a work in progress,” head coach Andy Shay said. “A lot of people think we are going to be a lot better than we are right now, so we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

High expectations for Yale, which spent three weeks ranked No. 1 in the nation last season, are perhaps most evident in the team’s preseason rankings: In addition to the No. 8 ranking, the Bulldogs are also the preseason favorites to repeat as Ivy League champions. ESPN and its family of networks will televise three of Yale’s games this season, the most in Bulldog history.

The Elis return all three of their starting attackers from last season’s team. Reeves had 45 goals and 34 assists last year to finish fourth in the nation in points and became the first Yale player to be nominated for the Tewaaraton Award, college lacrosse’s Heisman Trophy for the nation’s most outstanding player. Yale opponents will also have to contend with attacker Jeff Cimbalista ’17 and midfielder Jack Tigh ’19, both of whom started every game last year and combined for 33 goals.

Though the Bulldogs graduated their second leading scorer, midfielder Michael Keasey ’16, they will return a pair of first-line midfielders in Eric Scott ’17 and Brendan Mackie ’19. Yale also loses midfielder Jonathan Reese ’16, who took about half the team’s faceoffs last year, but retain midfielder Conor Mackie ’18, who won 50.8 percent of his draws during his sophomore year.

Attacker Jackson Morrill ’20, who will likely contribute to a high-powered Yale offense, credits his upperclassman teammates for helping him adjust to life as a lacrosse player at Yale.

“One of the biggest things that has helped me transition has been the seniors helping me with little things since getting here,” Morrill said. “Also, practicing with [Reeves], who is one of the best players in the country, has really improved my skills as a lacrosse player.”

The Bulldogs’ biggest question comes on defense, where they were among the nation’s best last year. The graduation of defensive midfielder Mark Glicini ’16, long-stick midfielder Reilly Naton ’16 and 2016 captain and defender Michael Quinn ’16 leaves few players on the defensive roster with abundant game experience. With defender Chris Keating ’18, the Bulldogs’ leader in ground balls and forced turnovers last year, sidelined for the season with an injury, defenders Camyar Matini ’17 and captain Brian Pratt ’17 will hope to lock down the traditionally stout Yale defense in 2017 after both missed extended time last year.

“We lost a lot of talented guys, and we may not be as talented as a group, but what that [amounts] to is guys trusting each other as a group and acting as one cohesive seven-man unit,” Pratt said.

Yale’s quest for a third consecutive Ivy League Tournament title will not be easy, with No. 10 Brown and Penn standing as the most difficult obstacles; the Bulldogs and Bears each received six of the 13 first-place votes in the Ivy League preseason media poll, and Penn took the final top nod.

The defending regular-season champions, Brown returns 2016 Tewaaraton Award-winning attacker Dylan Molloy, who led the nation with 116 points on 62 goals and 54 assists. However, the Bears will start 2017 without several primary contributors. Recently-graduated attackers Kylor Bellistri and Henry Blynn combined for 115 goals in 2016, while goalie Jack Kelly took home first-team All-American honors as a senior. Yale hosts the Bears on April 15 in its penultimate conference game — one which will likely be crucial for determining the Ivy League regular-season crown.

Penn, meanwhile, lurks as a dark horse in the Ivy League race. The young Quaker team will look to build on its third-place finish in 2016 on the shoulders of last year’s Ivy League Co-Rookies of the Year, goalie Reed Junkin and attacker Simon Mathias.

Yale will be tested early in the season, as it plays its first two games on the road against highly-touted opponents Villanova and No. 2 Maryland. The Bulldogs and the Terrapins have developed some bad blood in recent years: Maryland, which has appeared in the last two national championships, knocked Yale out of the 2015 NCAA tournament, but has fallen to the Bulldogs in its last two regular-season matchups. The Elis also travel to No. 13 Albany on April 22, a year after suffering an overtime loss at the hands of the Great Danes in New Haven.

“[Starting the season at Villanova] is nerve-racking.” Shay said. “We still feel like we are getting our feet under us so Villanova is going to be an incredible test.”

Saturday’s game against the Wildcats is slated for a 12 p.m. faceoff in Pennsylvania.