Yale Athletics

After falling just shy of becoming back-to-back national championships last spring, the Yale men’s lacrosse team enters this season with a chip on its shoulder.

The Bulldogs (0–0, 0–0 Ivy) seek redemption this year, launching their season campaign against Villanova (0–1, 0–0 Big East) for the fourth consecutive time on Saturday. After clinching the program’s first NCAA Division I National Championship in 2018 and losing Tewaaraton winner Ben Reeves ’18, last season’s resilient team of underdogs advanced to the championship game after defeating Georgetown, Penn and Penn State. Ranked fifth in the nation at the time, the Bulldogs unhinged No. 1 Penn State 21–17 in the semifinals but fell to Virginia 13–9 in the final challenge.

“The end [of last season] left a little bit of a sour taste in our mouth, but at the same time it was a great year,” head coach Andy Shay said. “We try not to dwell on the past too much, so we’re just trying to make the 2020 version of Yale lacrosse the best we can.”

Despite significantly outperforming Villanova by the time championship season rolled around, the Blue and White has fallen at the hands of the Wildcats for the past two years at their season opener. Both of those games resolved in sudden-death overtimes. Nevertheless, the Bulldogs will march into Pennsylvania with high expectations and hopes of clawing out a win. While Villanova has fallen off of the national ranked list in the preseason poll, both the Inside Lacrosse and USILA polls place the Bulldogs as No. 3 in the country, just shy of No. 1 Penn State and No. 2 defending national champions Virginia.

Returning to the Yale lineup is not only the best face-off man in the history of collegiate lacrosse — Albany transfer IL/USILA All-American TD Ierlan ’20 — but also four other Inside Lacrosse Preseason All-Americans and two additional USILA All-Americans.

Ierlan, a two-time Tewaaraton finalist, dominates the X and has collected a multitude of NCAA records including best face-off win percentage in a season (.791), best perfect face-off performance in a game (26 for 26), most face-offs won in a tournament game (31), total face-off wins in a season (393) and most ground balls in one game (29), per game (15.42, 2019) and in a season (293). Five out of his six records came in the 2019 season — Ierlan’s first with the Elis.

The 2017 and 2018 Ivy League champions welcomed 12 new first-year members to their roster this fall including six All-Americans and five current members of the US U19 team training roster. Defenseman BJ Burlace ’23 and midfielder Patrick Hackler ’23 are both top-25 recruits who should heavily contribute to the Elis’ success. Nationally, Burlace is the class of 2023’s second ranked defenseman, and the athletic rookie was also a four-year varsity football starter at St. Mary’s.

“Obviously coming into a very high level program you adapt very quickly,” defender Brett Mallee ’23 said. “We have leaders [all around]. It’s been a difficult … but efficient transition.”

On the defensive end, Yale takes comfort in the return of its three starters as well as goalie Jack Starr ’21 who manned the crease for the majority of last year. Two-time All-American and 2018 Ivy League Rookie of the Year Chris Fake ’21 returns as a two-year starter who has defended the likes of Albany’s star attackman Tehoka Nanticoke. In a 2018 game against the then-No. 2 Great Danes, Starr prevented the 250-pound force from scoring any goals against the Bulldogs. Aidan Hynes ’20 will also be a key piece on Yale’s success on its defensive side.

The Bulldogs also profit from the familiar faces of its three top attackmen, captain Jackson Morrill ’20, Matt Brandau ’22 and Matt Gaudet ’20, who were responsible for a combined 147 total goals in 2019. Lucas Cotler ’20 and Brian Tevlin ’21 were among the team’s top 10 offensive players as midfielders last year.

Villanova has gotten the best of Yale for the past two seasons in nail-biting finishes. The Bulldogs will look to reverse those results this week. The Big East powerhouse graduated 11 seniors and boasts a new recruit class of nine, none of whom made Inside Lacrosse’s Class of 2020 Recruiting Rankings. While those seniors will be missed and the recruits do not quite stack up against Yale’s, the Wildcats are still a force to be reckoned with. Four players were recently named to the All-Big East Preseason Team, and Villanova had one player named to Inside Lacrosse’s Preseason All-American Second Team.

The Wildcats dropped their first game against No. 1 Penn State, losing 19–10. Although they kept things even in the first quarter at 4–4, the Nittany Lions pulled away in the second and never looked back. Villanova’s defense buckled down and allowed its opposition just one goal in the third quarter, but its offensive struggles prevented the team from getting back into the game.

“I think they have dominant athletes, and they’re extremely talented,” Morrill said. “They have great players all over the place, so there are a lot of things to look forward to and it’s gonna be a challenge.”

The Bulldogs travel to Pennsylvania to take on Villanova at 1 p.m. on Saturday.

Akshar Agarwal | akshar.agarwal@yale.edu

Margaret Hedeman | margaret.hedeman@yale.edu

Correction, Feb. 14: A previous version of the article stated that the Bulldogs are reigning three-time Ivy League champions. In fact, they were champions in 2017 and 2018.