Courtesy of Steve Musco

For the first time in program history, the Yale men’s lacrosse team enters this season as both the defending national champion and the nation’s top-ranked preseason squad.

The Bulldogs (0–0, 0–0 Ivy) will kick off their 2019 title defense against Villanova (0–1, 0–0 Big East) this weekend. Yale will return to Reese Stadium with high expectations and look to continue last season’s hot run, which ended in the Elis downing perennial powerhouse Duke 13–11 in May to clinch the program’s first NCAA Division I National Championship. En route to the historic title, the Bulldogs racked up a record-breaking 17 wins and produced the winner of last season’s Tewaaraton Award — captain and attacker Ben Reeves ’18. But despite the graduation of a star-studded senior class, the Bulldogs return much of their deep squad from last year and have added talented specialists. This weekend, in their season opener, the Elis will not only look to provide an early response to preseason expectations but will also seek redemption, as they fell by one in overtime to Villanova to begin last season.

“As expected, [Reeves] has been a challenge for our offense to replace this year,” captain and midfielder John Daniggelis ’19 said. “But it has been one that I believe our team — and our offense specifically — has handled very well. … The goal for us offensively remains the same … which is avoiding complacency and attempting to get better day in and day out.”

On Saturday, Yale will begin its season against Villanova for the third consecutive time. Having won the first matchup in 2017, the Bulldogs went toe-to-toe with the Wildcats at the Patriot Cup held in Frisco, Texas last season. In an overtime thriller that saw Villanova attacker Danny Seibel score the game-winning goal with 20 seconds left, Reeves posted an impressive seven-point outing, while then-rookie goalie Jack Starr ’21 tallied eight saves.

With the graduation of the class of 2018, the Bulldogs lost their standout player, Reeves, who scored 115 points to lead the Elis in their championship run in his senior campaign and finally won the Tewaarton award after earning finalist nods in both his sophomore and junior years. But, even without Reeves, the offense will benefit from a wealth of talent and experience.

On the attack, Yale returns a pair of experienced but still young starters in Matt Gaudet ’20 and Jackson Morrill ’20. The junior duo has quietly climbed the program’s all-time rankings, combining for 81 goals last season alone. Just halfway through his collegiate career, Morrill will likely step into the role Reeves once occupied, that of the offense’s primary playmaker; Morrill started all 20 games last year and, in addition to his own scoring prowess, also put up 32 assists.

The Bulldogs have also reinforced their roster with highly ranked new additions. In the spring, Yale graduated a weapon at faceoff: Conor Mackie ’18. But the arrival of transfer TD Ierlan ’20, the top-ranked faceoff specialist from Albany, has softened the expected hit at the position.

The Bulldogs defeated Albany in last year’s semifinals, but Ierlan, who was playing for Albany at the time, outperformed Mackie — one of the top-ranked players at that position and a critical contributor to the Eli offense — in that matchup.

Less than a month after Albany’s 20–11 loss to Yale in the semifinal of the NCAA Tournament, Ierlan announced that he would be transferring to Yale — a highly unorthodox move for Yale’s program. Ierlan, who was a Tewaaraton finalist alongside Reeves, set national records for face-off percentage with an impressive .791, face-off wins with 359 and ground balls with 254.

“I believe Yale University has the best balance of both academics and athletics, and it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up on,” Ierlan said when asked about his decision to transfer. “The whole team has made the transition as easy as possible. I just want to help the team in any way I can.”

Joining Ierlan as new recruits to the program are 15 first years, two of which — face-off specialist Joe Neuman ’22 and attacker Matt Brandau ’22 — are ranked top-20 in the class. Joining the defense is a familiar face for fans of Yale athletics. Defender Spencer Alston ’22, who took snaps at the running back position for the Yale football team this season, will look to show off his speed, grit and skillset in a lacrosse uniform this spring.

With defensive starters still in question, the Elis will take comfort in returning first-team All-Ivy defender Chris Fake ’21 and goalie Jack Starr ’21. Fake often guarded the opposing team’s best offensive player, counteracting the attacker’s ability and forcing other individuals to make plays.

Though the Elis’ 2018 achievements still remain in the minds of lacrosse fans across the country, Yale seems to be trying its best to ignore its past accomplishments and focus on the upcoming season.

“One of the big things we’ve been working on this year is resetting from after last year’s success,” Fake said. “We got a lot of attention over the offseason and continue to get it, but we have put a lot of effort into the mentality of ‘this team hasn’t done anything yet’ and just forgetting about the past year’s outcome in general. We know we have targets on our backs, and we can’t let anything that happened last year affect this year’s team.”

Yale’s season opener against Villanova commences at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Reese Stadium.

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu

Cristofer Zillo | cristofer.zillo@yale.edu