David Schamis

Despite a second-quarter scare from the top-ranked team in the nation, the No. 5 Yale men’s lacrosse team emerged victorious in its NCAA semifinal bout in Philadelphia. In one of their best performances of the year, the Elis defeated Penn State 21–17 to advance to the national championship final on Monday. 

The Bulldogs (15–3, 5–1 Ivy), who advanced to semifinals after clawing out an overtime win over No. 4 Penn last week, charged out to a lopsided lead against the No. 1 Nittany Lions (16–1, 7–0 Big Ten) at Lincoln Financial Field. Dominance at the X from faceoff specialist TD Ierlan ’20 gave the Elis plenty of offensive opportunities that they converted on by shooting often and on target. Yale’s defenders limited the effectiveness of Penn State’s top-ranked scoring offense while the Elis also benefited from lackluster goalkeeping in the Nittany Lion cage. After falling behind 10–1 in the first, Penn State appeared to return to form in the second quarter – putting seven goals on the scoreboard while limiting Yale to just two – but could not keep up the momentum as PSU settled for a back-and-forth second half and ultimately fell by four goals. With the win, Yale heads to the NCAA National Championship for the second consecutive year, where it will meet No. 3 Virginia.

“I’d like to think that [Yale and Penn State] are two teams that are very difficult to stop,” head coach Andy Shay said. “A game that fast, and a game that intense, you can just hope you’re standing at the end of it.”

The Bulldogs’ experience from last season’s championship run paid huge dividends in the early stages of Saturday afternoon’s tilt as the Elis exploded out of the opening faceoff and netted four-straight goals before the Nittany Lions even got on the scoreboard. Penn State, which came into the weekend averaging 18 goals per game, trailed 10–2 after only producing two scores in the first 15 minutes of play, both coming by way of man-up opportunities. 

The Nittany Lions’ goalkeeping — which usually hovers just above a .500 save percentage — seemed helpless in responding to Yale’s offensive barrage in the first quarter, conceding close to one score per shot. 

However, Yale’s red-hot offense came to a momentary halt in the second period while Penn State shook off its early-game jitters. The Nittany Lions — whose only loss came against the Elis by a goal in February — relied on performances from their standout offensive pieces Mac O’Keefe and Grant Ament. Both rocketed off high-velocity shots from all kinds of angles to trim Yale’s lead to 12–9 at halftime. Attacker Matt Brandau ’22, a rookie phenom for the Bulldogs, came back in the second quarter to chop up Penn State’s scoring streak, but the Nittany Lions largely owned the period.

“It does speaks to the character of the guys in that locker room,” Penn State midfielder Nick Spillane said. “It’s not something you expect to be down eight goals after the first quarter, but [we] just battled back to get within a couple at halftime. It just speaks towards the resilience of the guys. That’s what we’re built on.”

In the second half, Ierlan – the Ivy League Player of the Year and a Tewaaraton Award finalist – remained mostly dominant on faceoffs but allowed Penn State FOGO Gerard Arceri to score straight from the X three times. Yale goalie Jack Starr ’21, who saw little action in the first quarter and struggled to stop PSU’s offensive firepower in the second, settled into his role as he made several clutch saves. His prowess in net complemented the tight coverage of defenders Chris Fake ’21, Will Weitzel ’20 and Aidan Hynes ’20 that often forced Ament — another Tewaaraton finalist who had 91 assists on the season — and company to take shots or make passes under pressure.

A back-and-forth third period saw both teams net four goals each to maintain the three-notch Yale advantage at 16–13. Despite an even spread in third-period scoring, Penn State midfielder Jack Kelly and attacker Dylan Foulds netted the period’s final two scores to give the Nittany Lions the momentum heading into the final period.  

After ducking out in the third quarter of the semifinal bout with an ankle injury, Brandau returned from the medical tent and took over the game. Scoring four goals in the final 15 minutes off play, the first-year phenom carved up the Nittany Lions’ defense and produced a comfortable 21–14 lead which allowed the Elis to coast to a four-goal victory. Late-game scores from Foulds came much too late to save the Nittany Lions’ miraculously successful season as the sea of white-donning fans was sent back to State College disappointed. Brandau led the day with seven goals and an assist, while attacker Jackson Morrill ’20 put up a hat-trick and pair of assists.

“We started hot moving the ball quickly,” Morrill said. “We knew Penn State could come back at any moment, so we knew it wasn’t done after the first quarter. We just tried to keep coming at them one possession at a time.”

The game, which featured 38 combined goals, marked the highest-scoring contest in NCAA tournament history. It followed the semifinal match between No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Virginia in which the Cavaliers forced overtime before prevailing 13–12 after trailing for most of the game. 

The Bulldogs will defend their crown on Monday at Lincoln Financial Field when they face off against Virginia at 1 p.m.

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu .

Cris Zillo | cris.zillo@yale.edu .