Steve Musco

The nine seniors on the Yale men’s lacrosse team have won two Ivy League titles in their time in New Haven, but never made it past the first round of the NCAA Tournament. If the No. 6 Bulldogs (8–2, 4–0 Ivy) finally break through to the quarterfinals this May, the senior class will be crucial to their success.

While captain and attacker Ben Reeves ’18 and faceoff specialist Conor Mackie ’18 have made names for themselves with the ball in their cradles, seniors also lead the Bulldog defense. And with the Elis near the top of the national rankings again this year, defense remains a cornerstone of the program — 2018 Elis boast one of their best defensive units in recent memory.

For defenders Christopher Keating ’18 and Jerry O’Connor ’18, building the nation’s ninth-best defense began long before the season started. Yale entered 2018 with holes in the back — both in the third defender spot and in goal — and had to turn to rookies. In order to enter this Saturday’s contest against Brown undefeated in Ivy play, the veterans had to bring the new kids up to speed.

“Since we first met in the fall, Chris and Jerry did an awesome job of incorporating us [first years] into the Yale defense,” starting defender Chris Fake ’21 said. “They would have us take responsibility for leading the communication, as that was by far the most difficult to pick up. They never took an easy on us because we are [first years], and that helped tremendously in learning the team defense. Because of this, we were able to adopt the team defense pretty quick once the season started.”

This year, The Elis have relied on a mix of experience and youth. While the Bulldogs’ junior class has stepped up and shown on offense, accounting for over 40 percent of the team’s 122 combined goals this season, rookies Fake and goalie Jack Starr ’21 have accompanied the seniors on defense.

Yale’s defense has been stingy all season, allowing just over eight goals per contest. That performance stems from the program’s focus on communication, according to Fake. The team also stresses an all-in philosophy on making hustle plays, such as diving for endline balls even if the chance of winning possession is slim. This mindset — a staple of the Yale defense in recent years — gives the Blue a spark of energy and momentum.

O’Connor and Keating boast more than three years of Yale lacrosse experience under head coach Andy Shay and defensive coordinator Andrew Baxter and have been well trained in the Yale defensive mindset. They have passed that toughness on to the rookies, both in their words and their actions on the field.

“It’s awesome having two seniors and phenomenal defensemen like Keating and O’Connor,” Starr said. “For me what I’ve learned from them is more the intangibles on defense. Jerry and Chris have obviously been here for awhile and been in almost every situation on a field, and one of Chris Keating’s normal sayings now when we have five minutes left to play or are in a tense situation in a game is ‘just play,’ which essentially means don’t worry and just play defense and play consistently.”

Both seniors have set the tone with the quality of their play as well. O’Connor has been consistent thus far in the 2018 campaign, scooping up 12 ground balls and causing seven turnovers. Keating, who returned to the field this season after a yearlong hiatus due to injury, ranks 14th in the NCAA in forced turnovers with 1.89 per game.

“Keating has been a phenomenal player all four years at Yale,” O’Connor said. “We’ve definitely felt his absence last year a bit. He’s a machine with regards ground balls, and he’s a great leader on the field. He brings something to the game I don’t think any other defender or Division I lacrosse player has given his skill set with stick skills, off-ball defense and his overall presence.”

But O’Connor and Keating’s defense would not lead the Ivy League in goals allowed were it not for the performances of the team’s rookies.

Although the 2018 campaign marks his debut season for Yale, Starr has looked like a seasoned veteran in the crease. Poised throughout the season, the Washington, D.C. native boasts a save percentage of .500 and has stopped 73 shots, many of which shifted momentum in crucial stretches of games.

Starr’s fellow first year, Fake, has tallied 13 ground balls and seven forced turnovers to keep pace next to his older teammates Keating and O’Connor. With Keating and O’Connor gearing up for their final four regular-season games with the Bulldogs, it will be up to Fake and Starr to continue Yale’s tradition of strong defense. Asked what advice he would give the rookies for the remainder of their Yale careers, O’Connor stressed the importance of improving every day.

“[They] have so much more time,” O’Connor said. “[They] have three years left and any senior can attest that we’d give anything to have that much time left in this program. But if you get better every day and you give it everything you have, you’ll get the most out of this program and you’ll give the most as well.”

The Bulldogs played four nationally ranked teams this year, defeating No. 9 Cornell and No. 20 Michigan while the team’s two losses on the season have come at the hands of No. 11 Bucknell and No. 13 Villanova.

Three of Yale’s four remaining regular season opponents are either ranked in the nation’s top 20 or sit just outside it.

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