Last year, the Yale men’s lacrosse team’s quest for a perfect season was shattered in a top-five clash at Brown. Although neither the Bulldogs nor the Bears are ranked in the top-10 as Brown travels to New Haven this year, Saturday’s grudge match has as much at stake.
No. 15 Yale (7–3, 4–0 Ivy) and Brown (5–4, 2–1) are the only Ivy League teams to have reached the NCAA tournament each of the last two years, but both teams dropped three straight games early in the season, jeopardizing their chances of returning to the dance. With just three games to go in the 2017 campaign, the Bulldogs, undefeated in Ivy play, are surging. A victory against Brown would secure them a share of the Ivy League title and home-field advantage for the conference tournament, where a championship would punch their third straight ticket to the national tournament.
“We have to have the ball, play good defense and shoot well,” head coach Andy Shay said. “I don’t think we shot well [against Dartmouth], and if we have a similar shooting performance, we are not going to like the result at the end.”
The 2016 chapter of one of lacrosse’s budding rivalries was an intense battle of the offenses. The teams combined for a total of 79 shots in a stadium so packed that members of the crowd hung over fences to catch a glimpse of the action in Providence. Then-No. 1 Yale led by three at halftime before falling 14–12 to No. 4 Brown.
Much has changed for both teams since last April. In June, Brown head coach Lars Tiffany, who built the Bears into a nationally respected program with his aggressive, up-tempo offense, was hired at perennial powerhouse University of Virginia.
And Tiffany was not the only piece of the two-time Ivy regular season champions to depart after the season. On the field, Brown graduated five starters. Attackers Kylor Bellistri and Henry Blynn, who combined for 115 goals during their senior campaigns with five coming against Yale, headlined the departing class. The Bears also graduated first-team all-American goalie Jack Kelly and second-team all-American face-off man Will Gural, who won draws at a 70 percent rate last year. Brown has replaced Bellistri and Blynn with a pair of freshman attackers who are just as lethal. Luke McCaleb and Jack Kniffin have combined for 30 goals this season.
Yale, which lost four starters as well, has also reloaded on the recruiting trail. The trio of offensive threats in attackers Jackson Morrill ’20 and Matt Gaudet ’20 as well as midfielder Lucas Cotler ’20 each have double digit goals this year. The three freshmen have tallied a total of 50 goals in 10 games this season, with nine Bulldogs recording six or more goals thus far in 2017.
“Throughout the year we’ve just been really unselfish,” midfielder Eric Scott said ’17. “No egos on the offense … you can’t understate the importance of that to be successful.”
Despite all the upheaval, the biggest headline in Saturday will be what has not changed as two of the nation’s best offensive players go head-to-head once more.
Brown’s Dylan Molloy and Yale’s Ben Reeves ’18, who appeared back-to-back on the cover of Inside Lacrosse magazine’s NCAA preview, rewrote the history books with their performances last season. Molloy earned the Tewaaraton Award for most outstanding player after leading the nation in assists and points last year, while Reeves was one of four other finalists for the award — the first Bulldog to be considered for such an honor. Molloy travels to New Haven with 47 total points while Reeves enters the contest with 46.
Both teams boast top-10 offenses, as Brown ranks fourth nationally with the Elis close behind in sixth. With how good both offenses are and the possibility of the game being decided by who gets the last possession, the battle at the X will be as essential as ever on Saturday.
Midfielder Conor Mackie ’18 has a crucial role obtaining ball control for the Bulldogs from the X, where Yale currently outperforms the Bears. The Bulldogs win 61.8 percent of faceoffs compared to Brown’s 58.6 percent.
“We have a lot of respect for [the Bears], particularly their up-tempo pace of play,” Mackie said. “We need to be diligent with the ball and avoid mistakes that lead to transition opportunities.”
Yale’s defense, led by goaltender Phil Huffard ’18, will have its work cut out for it this weekend, as Molloy shredded the Elis for a game-high five goals last season. However, Huffard is on a bit of a hot streak himself after earning the starting spot once again after being benched for three games.
“We took [Huffard] out, and we challenged him and he’s stepped up,” Shay said. “His performance [against Dartmouth] was amazing. Those two or three [saves] where he dove, those look dazzling; they’re not fundamental, but they’re fun to watch. They’re a sign of a guy that’s playing well and has confidence.”
While the Bears’ goaltender Phil Gross ranks fourth in the nation in saves per game, this may be due in part to Brown’s defense, which is currently third from last in the country. Yale will need to capitalize on this defensive weakness if it wants to reverse the outcome of last year’s match up.
Yale’s best chance to stop Molloy and company may come in the clearing game. Yale has befuddled its opponents this year with an aggressive 10-man ride, preventing the opposing defense from easily getting the ball to its offense. Brown is 53rd of all 69 Division I teams in clearing percentage. Failed clears on Saturday would burn the Bears in two ways, keeping the ball out of Molloy’s stick while giving Reeves second-chance opportunities.
“The ride is something that can definitely throw you off and be tough to clear with so we definitely like to use it when we feel it is necessary,” Huffard said.
Shay attributed the success of the 10-man ride to defensive coordinator Andrew Baxter, calling the full-field pressure “Bax’s baby.”
The nine members of the senior class will dress for their final regular season game at Reese Stadium on Saturday. A victory would secure at least one more home contest by clinching home-field advantage for the May 5–7 Ivy tournament.
Yale and Brown face off at noon on Saturday.