Despite being the defending national champion, the five-seeded Yale men’s lacrosse team enter this year’s championship weekend as the underdog once again, this time against this year’s heavyweight and favorite No. 1 Penn State.
The Bulldogs (14–3, 5–1 Ivy) emerged from last weekend’s quarterfinal match against conference rival No. 4 Penn (12–4, 6–0) with a clawed-out overtime victory to advance to championship weekend for a second consecutive year. The Elis, who lost by one goal to the Quakers in both earlier meetings of the two squads this year, will face the top-seeded Nittany Lions (16–1, 5–0 Big Ten) on Saturday afternoon. While the Bulldogs have weathered an up-and-down campaign to follow up their first-ever national title, Penn State has established themselves as Division I’s team to beat, despite increasing parity at the collegiate level. The Nittany Lions have just one blemish in an otherwise unbeaten season — they fell by one to Yale early in the season. On Saturday, the Elis will look for a chance to defend their crown by repeating a win against a team that has since transformed into a Goliath-like scoring force.
“[Penn State] looks a lot better [than when we met earlier in the season],” head coach Andy Shay said. “And they looked pretty scary and impressive the first time…it’s going to be a huge challenge, and we’re going to have to button up on the defensive end and convert on opportunities on the offensive end.”
Last weekend the Bulldogs went toe-to-toe with conference rival Penn for the third time in 2019, but this time in the quarterfinal of the NCAA Tournament. In the first meeting between the Ancient Eight’s best teams, the Quakers snapped the Bulldogs’ six-game winning streak in a triple-overtime thriller that saw Penn netminder Reed Junkin snag 22 saves. The two met again in the final of the Ivy League Tournament, where Yale fell — once again — by a single goal and saw another six-game winning streak dissolved. Penn bested the Elis 15–11 in faceoffs, marking the first time Yale failed to hold an advantage at the X all season.
Eerily similar to both of the last two meetings, last weekend’s quarterfinal between Yale and Penn was a seesaw affair, with neither team able to pull away by more than a two-goal advantage. Stellar play from both offenses contributed to near 20-point outings. But this time, there was a different outcome.
The Quakers capitalized on a man-up opportunity to cut the Bulldogs’ 18–16 lead down to just one with the clock winding down. Attacker Simon Mathias then netted the game-tying goal with just seconds left to send the tilt into an overtime period with the score locked at 18–18.
After FOGO TD Ierlan ’20 won the faceoff, Junkin, who continued to elevate his play against the Elis, saved a point-blank shot from attacker Matt Gaudet ’20 to give the Quakers a chance at a Championship Weekend appearance. But a costly turnover allowed midfielder Jack Tigh ’19 to rifle in the game-winning goal after falling to the ground and splitting two defenders.
No team in Division I has an undefeated record this year, and the Nittany Lions are the closest thing to perfect among this year’s elite teams. The parity between top collegiate programs was on full display during last weekend’s quarterfinal meetings. Although the ultimate slate of teams that advanced to Philadelphia were largely the expected teams — Duke and Virginia emerged victorious in their respective games to make the semifinals between the No. 1, 2, 3 and 5 tournament seeds — three of the four quarterfinal matches took sudden-death overtime to determine a winner.
Yale and Penn were tied nine different times in their game, and neither team ever led by more than two. The Quakers forced an extra period after two goals in the final minute of regulation play. The Blue Devils have now scraped by two weekends in a row — they pulled off a low-scoring, one-goal win against Richmond in the first round of the tournament, and then fended off a surge and overtaking of the lead by Notre Dame late in the fourth period to grab the game-winner in extra time. In their quarterfinal against Maryland, the Cavaliers trailed for three full quarters before mounting an impressive final period to force overtime and punch their tickets to Philly.
Only Penn State, which boasts a potent offense that will pose a challenge to Yale’s young and inconsistent defense, came away from its quarterfinal bout without any major scares. Against a high-octane Loyola squad, the Nittany Lions systematically dismantled the Greyhounds to win 21–14, despite another standout performance from Loyola attacker Pat Spencer, a two-time Tewaaraton finalist and favorite to win the honor this year.
“There’s a reason why [Penn State is] the number one offense in the country,” Tigh said. “They’ve got some great players with great experience. They’re multi-talented…they definitely know how to pull out wins.”
The opening faceoff is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field.
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