As the Yale men’s lacrosse team has risen to national prominence over the last few years, it has received the top ranking in the national media poll several times. But every time the Bulldogs vaulted to the top of the national rankings, head coach Andy Shay and his players were quick to say that what really mattered was being No. 1 at the end of the season, not just midway through it.
On Monday, the No. 3 Bulldogs (17–3, 7–0 Ivy) finally proved that the top lacrosse team in the nation hailed from New Haven. Yale earned its first NCAA title in program history, defeating No. 4 Duke (16–4, 3–1 ACC) 13–11 in the national championship game in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
“We just try to get better every day,” Shay said. “It’s cliché, but I like to think that we did that. We were one of the better teams at the start of the season, and now we’re the best team at the end. That to me is mission accomplished.”
Just two days after thrashing No. 2 Albany 20–11 in the semifinal to kick off Yale’s first Final Four appearance since 1990, the Elis defeated a Blue Devil squad that had won three national titles in the last eight years and became the first Ivy League school to win the national championship since Princeton’s successful bid in 2001.
Although dominance at the faceoff X by midfielder Conor Mackie ’18 and electric goals by attacker Ben Reeves ’18 had carried Yale to the national championship game, the Bulldogs had to rely on other players on Memorial Day. Playing with an injured hand, Mackie won just 14 of 28 faceoffs on the day, well below his season average of 63.3 percent from the X. Reeves, the Tewaaraton Award finalist, scored just one goal, although he tallied three assists on the day.
But as any national champion does, Yale saw other players step up on the biggest stage. Midfielder Jack Tigh ’19 scored three goals in the first half after netting just two in the previous three tournament games. Meanwhile, attacker Matt Gaudet ’20 led the way with four goals, and goaltender Jack Starr ’21, who had been a liability at times during his rookie season, made nine saves. Still, those players credited the seniors for guiding them along the way.
“From day one, Ben [Reeves] really showed me what it is like to be a Yale lacrosse player,” Gaudet said. “I used to really believe that lacrosse was just a talent-based game, and then Ben showed me the way, and he showed me it’s all about fundamentals. It’s all about working hard.”
Quick starts have propelled Yale to victories throughout the season — a 7–0 lead against Albany in the first quarter all but secured a spot in Monday’s championship game — and the Bulldogs got another one on Monday, netting the first three goals of the game.
Tigh opened the scoring with two unassisted tallies in the first four minutes of the first frame. Gaudet increased the Eli lead to three when he received a pass from midfielder Lucas Cotler ’20 and buried it past the right shoulder of Duke netminder Danny Fowler.
The Blue Devils entered Monday’s game coming off of a 13–8 victory against No. 1 Maryland and would not go down without a fight. To end the first quarter, Duke midfielder Kevin Quigley cut the Bulldog lead to just two goals by sending a shot past Starr.
Attacker Brendan Rooney ’19 increased the Eli lead back to three in the opening stages of the second frame when he received a pass from Cotler and buried it in the back of the cage.
Although Duke would score the next two goals, the Bulldogs were quick to respond. Tigh once again found the back of the net to halt Duke’s run and add to the Yale advantage. After another Duke score midfielder Joe Sessa ’19 raced past his defender to give Yale a 6–4 lead heading into halftime.
Fresh out of their respective locker rooms, Yale and Duke picked up the tempo in a high-scoring, back-and-forth third quarter. The Bulldogs seized the early momentum with four of the first five goals.
Reeves scored his 62nd goal of the season to give Yale a three-goal lead to open up the half. Midfielder Brian Tevlin ’21 followed it up to give Yale a four-goal lead. But, Yale was not yet done. Capitalizing on a man-up situation, Reeves dumped off a pass to Gaudet, who found himself wide open in front of the cage to increase the advantage to five.
Duke refused to let up as it scored again to come back within four goals early in the third. The Blue Devils gained another advantage when Mackie was sidelined for a one-minute penalty, but Starr came in clutch again with another crucial save. Yet, Duke would score five of the next seven goals to cut the Yale lead to 11–9 in the final minutes of the third quarter.
“We came out hot in the third quarter, and we knew Duke was going to come out and respond shortly after, and they did,” Reeves said. “They pulled it within two. We were able to make a couple plays late in that third quarter to kind of stretch that lead, and thankfully hold onto it.”
With the Yale lead nearly gone and all the momentum on the side of the Blue Devils, Eli midfielder Jason Alessi ’18 — who has struggled offensively this season — showcased his speed on a fast break, shooting a high bounce-shot straight into Duke’s cage to extend the lead to three heading into the final 15 minutes of play.
Gaudet tallied another goal to give the Elis a four-goal lead with under 10 minutes left. Duke’s Joe Robertson and Peter Conley cut Elis’ lead to two goals. But several long possessions from Yale’s offense and stifling pressure from its defense prevented Duke from scoring again, and Yale escaped with the 13–11 victory.
Gaudet was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after scoring a combined 10 goals between the semifinal and championship game.
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