Don’t let the national media fool you. Yale men’s lacrosse is one of the favorites to win the national championship.
In sports, defending champions often receive an incumbency advantage. Media members and selection committees inflate rankings based on what they saw the year before.
College basketball gives us many examples of this phenomenon. No matter how poorly Duke plays in the regular season, the Blue Devils always seem to receive a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament because of their program’s history. Similarly, very few people picked Virginia to win the national championship this year — even though it had lost just three games all season — because they knew that Virginia made history losing to a No. 16 seed the year before. It’s PSYC 110. No really, I learned about recency bias in Introduction to Psychology last year.
However, recency bias has not affected how the media perceives Yale lacrosse this season. In other words, the Bulldogs have not received the Duke treatment. Despite winning the national championship last season and boasting a 10–2 record, Yale is currently ranked No. 5 in the nation, and two, three-loss teams are ranked above it. ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich, probably the most renowned reporter in college lacrosse, frequently writes about how the Bulldogs just aren’t as good as they were last year.
In fairness to the Bulldogs’ critics, Yale has not played as strong of a schedule as its competitors in the ACC and Big Ten. However, commentators should take Yale’s schedule more seriously. The Bulldogs boast wins over No. 1 Penn State and No. 9 Cornell. Their lone losses came to No. 4 Penn and No. 18 Villanova in fluky, overtime contests. One of those losses came in the season opener against a team that already had a game and an extra month’s worth of practice under its belt. The other came in a triple-overtime contest in which the opposing team tied the game just as the clock expired and saw its goaltender make 22 saves.
The point is that no one has convincingly beaten Yale this year. Until I see the reigning national champions get outplayed for the majority of a game, I think that Yale, with its win over the No. 1 team in the nation, should be one of the favorites in the postseason.
Although the Elis looked shaky at times this year — needing overtime to beat UMass and trailing Princeton at halftime — they keep winning. The Bulldogs wield all the tools needed to repeat as champions on Memorial Day, a fact that the wider lacrosse world has largely missed.
Sure, Yale lost the best senior class in program history last May. Yes, at times this year, Yale could have used defensive midfielders like Tyler Warner ’18 and Jason Alessi ’18. And yes, Yale’s offense dearly misses Ben Reeves ’18, the best player in program history — sorry Jon Reese ’90, I vote new school in this Jordan-versus-LeBron debate. But rather than looking at what the 2019 Bulldogs lack, take a closer look at what they have added.
TD Ierlan ’20, who transferred to Yale this past summer, is winning 78 percent of his faceoffs this year. For context, Conor Mackie ’18 — Yale’s All-American faceoff specialist last year — won 62.5 percent of his draws during the national championship run. I waxed poetically about Ierlan’s skills in my previous column, but I can’t stress his impact enough. By giving Yale three times as many possessions as its opponents, Ierlan makes a bigger impact on the game than any other player in the nation. He almost single-handedly took Albany to the national semifinals last year. Who knows how far he could take a more talented Yale team.
Yale has surrounded Ierlan with the seventh-best scoring offense in the nation, which includes all of its starters from last year except Reeves. New to the party is rookie Matt Brandau ’22, who has scored 25 goals off the bench.
Defensively, the Bulldogs have steadily improved, holding Albany to a season-low five goals last weekend. Chris Fake ’21 has proven capable of shutting down the nation’s best offensive players. Moreover, goaltender Jack Starr ’21 came up with his best performance of the season against Albany, giving the Bulldogs the chance to ride a hot goaltender into May.
Most importantly, the Bulldogs have appeared in the last four NCAA tournaments. Experience gives them an unquantifiable edge once the tournament begins.
I know head coach Andy Shay won’t like this column. He likes to keep expectations low — stay out of the papers and let the players prove themselves on the field. Perhaps he’s right. If so, handing the Bulldogs underdog status might be their greatest weapon.
But underdogs or not, Yale — with Ierlan winning faceoffs and Starr heating up — is the toughest out in the tournament.
Matthew Mister | email@example.com