Steve Musco

In the first act of its title defense, the Yale men’s lacrosse team fell to a familiar opponent in Villanova.

Toting the program’s first-ever national championship, the then No. 1 Bulldogs (0–1, 0–0 Ivy) returned to Reese Stadium atop the preseason rankings to host Villanova (1–1, 0–0 Big East) in their season opener. Rust from the offseason coupled with the loss of several playmakers translated to an inconsistent Eli performance. Although Yale got off to a solid start, the Wildcats never trailed by more than three goals and managed a mid-game surge to make it a close back-and-forth game. The Bulldogs ultimately mounted a late comeback attempt and pushed the match into overtime, but Villanova converted on its critical offensive possession to emerge victorious 11–10. The match and its outcome closely parallel Yale’s season opener last year, in which the Elis similarly fell to the Wildcats by one in overtime after a low-scoring match.

“We stub our toe, and we recover, and now we’re in a situation where we better recover,” head coach Andy Shay said. “I don’t think we were that clean with the ball — we were cleaner in our scrimmages — and it reminds me of last year … it’s a lesson the team needs to learn: not to pay attention to the scoreboard and just play.”

In front of a packed crowd, the 2018 NCAA Division I Champions began their season in a decked-out facility boasting a newly-installed video board and turf surface. Despite the graduation of Tewaaraton winner Ben Reeves ’18, the afternoon began promisingly for the Elis.

From the first faceoff, TD Ierlan ’21 delivered in his Eli debut. Ierlan, the nation’s top faceoff specialist, transferred to Yale this fall after spending two years at the University of Albany. He gave Yale the first offensive possession of the day, which translated into an opening goal for the Bulldogs just seconds later. Defender Robert Mooney ’19 found attacker Jackson Morrill ’20 to hand the Elis the early lead.

The Wildcats quickly notched a response, but captain and midfielder John Daniggelis ’19 shrugged off a defender to pull ahead for Yale again. The first quarter remained close, despite the Elis’ edge on offensive possession. The Villanova defense continued to outshine its Eli counterparts for the remainder of the game, even with the return of All-Ivy first team defender Chris Fake ’21 to the Bulldogs’ starting lineup.

Midway through the second period, the Bulldogs led their visitors 5–2, with Daniggelis and Morrill scoring two goals each and attacker Matt Gaudet ’20 scoring one. Ierlan’s consistency continued — he won eight of the first nine match-ups — and, along with Jack Starr ’21 in goal, held off the Wildcats in the game’s first half.

But Villanova, arriving in New Haven after a lopsided 17–7 loss to Penn State two weeks ago, put four unanswered balls into the back of the cage to flip the lead and pull ahead 6–5 by the second half.

The Eli offense struggled with clean execution throughout the match. Despite the initial lead, Yale fell behind in the second and third quarter in both ground balls and shots on the cage. The Elis dominated their opponents in both categories in both the first and final quarters, but Villanova capitalized on the Bulldogs’ sluggish mid-game play — the Wildcats outshot the Elis 27–18 and won 20 ground balls to the Bulldogs’ 12 across the second and third periods. Yale also recorded four failed clears to Villanova’s two.

Both teams struggled with turnovers to open the match, but by the third period, Villanova had settled in, limiting its turnovers on the quarter to just one, while the Elis were burdened with seven of their game-total 15.

“There were definitely some first-time jitters out there, coming from the top all the way to the bottom,” midfielder Jack Tigh ’19 said. “We could have done a better job with our details … the little details that we messed up, it goes a long way.”

Villanova broke a 6–6 tie in the third period with two goals to enter the final period up 8–6. A flurry of traded scores opened the fourth, and Yale trailed 10–7 just two minutes into the final period.

Gaudet kicked off the comeback attempt, scoring to cut the deficit to two with 10 minutes left. The next seven minutes were scoreless, but as the clock ran out, Tigh came in with another goal to make it a one-score game with just three minutes remaining. Less than a minute later, rookie attacker Matt Brandau ’22 — who notched his first collegiate goal earlier in the match on a man-up — found midfielder Joey Sessa ’19, who put it past Villanova’s senior goalie Nick Testa to knot the game at 10–10.

A critical Villanova turnover caused by defender Will Weitzel ’20 ensured sudden-death overtime, when Ierlan — who dominated in regulation with 18 wins on 24 attempts — lost to open the period. The Wildcats wasted no time and turned the possession into another overtime win over the Bulldogs just a minute into the extra time, reminiscent of their 10–9 OT victory against the Elis in Texas last year.

“We didn’t play our brand of lacrosse,” Starr said. “We responded with talent plays rather than fundamentals and execution … we tried to make “hero plays” rather than adhere to foundational skills. We failed to do the little things we normally value such as diving for end lines, getting low for ground balls, and clearing the ball from defense to offense.”

For their first performances of the season, both Ierlan and Brandau received weekly Ivy Honor Roll nods.

The No. 6 Bulldogs are now the Ivy League’s second-highest ranked team, behind No. 4 Cornell.

Angela Xiao | .