Courtesy of Steve Musco

The Yale men’s lacrosse team began its season with a series of narrow, back-and-forth decisions. But, over spring break, the 2018 national champions asserted themselves with three emphatic victories, including an upset win over a nationally ranked conference heavyweight.

The No. 3 Bulldogs (5–1, 2–0 Ivy) opened their two-week academic hiatus with a road trip to play Michigan (3–5, 0–0 Big Ten) before returning to Reese Stadium to take on then-No. 3 Cornell (5–3, 0–2) in a battle of the league’s only ranked squads. In both games, the Elis turned the corner from their dismal starts and low-scoring bouts earlier in the season to ride out early leads and earn comfortable 17–11 and 16–11 victories, respectively. On Saturday against Princeton (2–5, 0–2), Yale again suffered from a shaky start and fell behind to the Tigers. But the Elis held steady using strong defense and goalkeeping to mount a successful comeback and extend their winning streak to five with a 15–10 win.

“We always know where we want to be,” defender Chris Fake ’21 said. “We are trying to just keep striving for the best version of ourselves in practice every day. … We didn’t do anything different than what we’ve always been trying to do on defense, we are just starting to execute a little better and better.”

In the Elis’ first three matches of the season — two of which went into overtime — they averaged 12 goals a game. On their first road trip, the Bulldogs hit the ground running against the Wolverines and never looked back. Yale grabbed the game’s opening goal, and while Michigan responded with an equalizer on a man-up, the Elis notched three in a row from three different scorers to end the first quarter up 4–2.

Although Michigan orchestrated a strong second period, knotting the match at 4–4 early and trailing by just one with less than four minutes remaining in the half, the Bulldogs embarked on a scoring spree that put the Wolverines in a sizable hole. From there on out, Yale relied on its deep roster of scorers — attackers Jackson Morrill ’20, Matt Gaudet ’20 and Matt Brandau ’22, and midfielder Brian Tevlin ’21 — to find the cage six times before Michigan, trailing 12–6, could muster up an answer.

The Wolverines continued to rally and took advantage of Eli penalties by scoring on all three of its advantages but could not surmount the deficit, and the Bulldogs held on for a 17–11 win.

With the victory under their belts, the then-No. 4 Bulldogs returned to Reese to open conference competition against their strongest regular-season opponent of the season: then-No. 3 Cornell, which had just secured an eight-score victory over previously-No. 1 Towson.

But the Elis, again, charged out for the win, putting three in the back of the net before Cornell found its first score. Yale benefited from its consistent offensive strengths: dominance from faceoff specialist Td Ierlan ’21 — whose older brother Chayse was in goal for the Big Red — in addition to a long and varied list of experienced scorers.

While five different players scored for Yale, a six-goal performance by Brandau anchored the Elis’ offensive output against Cornell. The rookie starter, a top-20 recruit out of Maryland, quietly made his contributions from the get-go, scoring five times across Yale’s first four games. Brandau broke through to power the Eli offense against Cornell and tie Yale’s rookie scoring record in a game. His performance earned him a double-nod from the Ivy League, and he was named both Player of the Week and Rookie of the Week.

Gaudet, who registered a 41-goal season last year as a sophomore starter, scored five times against the Big Red, while the defense anchored by goalie Jack Starr ’21 — who had four saves in the first quarter and 10 total — held Cornell to its lowest offensive output of the season. The effort earned the Elis a 16–11 win and ushered in Yale’s return as the conference’s highest-ranked squad.

“More than anything, we are becoming much better at communicating on offense and being comfortable with and confident in each other,” Brandau said.

The Bulldogs hit the road again to face Princeton on Saturday. While Starr and the defense put together a thoroughly convincing performance, the offense wavered midway through the match. While the Elis seized an early 1–0 lead, strong defense from both teams kept the nets largely untouched — the teams were locked at one at the end of the opening quarter.

The Tigers took advantage of a sluggish second quarter from the Elis to put up four straight goals and head into the second half leading 5–3. While the Bulldogs rallied in the third quarter — Brandau found the back of the cage twice to close the period — the game was within one score or tied for all of the period as Yale entered the final frame ahead by just one.

When Yale’s offense finally settled in, the defense continued to keep the team in close contention. Starr made a career-high 16 saves. The defense also limited the Tigers’ top weapon, attacker Michael Sowers — the Division’s highest goals-per-game player in the last 37 years — to one.

The Elis found their offensive groove late in the game, relying again on tried-and-true contributions across the roster. Goals from eight different players — including Ierlan — combined with a steady defensive effort lifted the Elis to a 15–11 win.

“While every player has a specific role to play, no one can be on fire all the time,” Starr said. “Our defense played with urgency from the first whistle. In the second half of the game, our offense turned up the heat with a lot of guys making tough plays.”

Ierlan has continued to deliver reliable dominance on the X, going 63 for 80 in the Bulldogs’ last three matches. Yale next hosts the Air Force on Tuesday at 7 p.m.

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu