Before former Athletics Director Tom Beckett hired Andy Shay in 2003, the Yale men’s lacrosse team was nowhere near the national spotlight. The Bulldogs had emerged as No. 1 in the country only once before. That was in 1883.
As Yale hopes to make its third consecutive trip to the NCAA finals, Shay continues his 17th crusade with the Elis, which has included 155 program wins, five Ivy league Championships, two USILA Division I Coach of the Year honors and one NCAA championship crown. Just last weekend, the No. 1 Bulldogs defeated No. 2 Penn State, which was ranked first in the nation at the time, with the Elis seeded third. Shay currently fields one of the most talented rosters in recent history, yet the Bulldogs were not always the top dogs.
Well before Shay was hoisting trophies, Yale lacrosse was scraping the bottom of the Ancient Eight barrel. So how did Shay take this rag tag program from the bottom of the Ivy League to number one in the nation? The answer: attitude.
From the moment Shay stepped foot on campus, the team felt his presence. “After only brief meetings, it is clear that he brings a style of intensity and intelligence to the game,” goalie Roy Skeen ’04 told the News back in 2003. “It is refreshing and infectious.”
From the start of the 2004 season — in which the Bulldogs finished Ivy play with a measly 1–5 record — Shay emphasized hard work and intensity. Unbeknownst to most, Shay and his staff were slowly changing the culture at Yale, which ultimately turned Yale men’s lacrosse into the powerhouse that it is today.
But that change didn’t happen overnight.
Shay led the Bulldogs to their first winning conference record under his reign in 2010, but the Blue and White did not receive an NCAA tournament bid until 2012. Twenty years had passed since the Elis had demonstrated their ability to compete on the national stage under former head coach Mike Waldvogel. In fact, the only success that the Bulldogs ever had in the NCAA tournament prior to Shay’s arrival came under Waldvogel. Most notably, Yale made it to the Final Four in 1990. Waldvogel left the program suddenly in January of 2003, after the Yale Athletic Department investigated possible rules violations under his leadership.
Shay took over the program after bringing his UMass Minutemen to NCAA tournament quarterfinal berths in both 2002 and 2003 as an assistant coach. Since then, Shay has continually emphasized extreme dedication and humility, which have become the core of Yale’s lacrosse program. In interviews with the News, players and coaches in the industry attributed the Bulldogs’ success to that mentality.
“One thing about coach Shay is that when he first came in, the intent was not to become a national contender, but he wanted to change the culture … from there it was about laying that foundation,” said Jason Alessi ’18, a member of the 2018 national championship squad. “Each year he got better and better and instilled that belief that we won’t be the most talented, but we’ll be the hardest working, the most gritty, chasing down every ball. The goal eventually changed from winning one game to two games, to then winning an Ivy championship. Eventually it became competing on a national scale, and that came from all those years prior where he laid that foundation.”
This sentiment was echoed by players well before Yale was chasing crowns. Shay laid the groundwork for success throughout his tenure, slowly building up the culture that he had in mind for his team.
That mentality isn’t simply one Shay instills in his players alone, but rather is one he also goes to great lengths to uphold himself. Back in 2009, before Yale was even in contention for an Ancient Eight crown, Shay showed up to a 7 a.m. lift the morning following his spinal surgery, Gregory Mahony ’12 recalled.
“In the 2009–10 season we weren’t that good, but every practice was more intense than any game,” Mahony said. “We take recruits to a practice and show them we’re gonna beat you up. Can’t take any practices, any days or any plays off, neither the players nor the coach. And that builds up that winning mentality.”
Back in 2010, when Bulldogs clinched the Ivy league title for the first time under Shay, the Blue and White boasted just one incoming top 100 recruit. In the most recent class with 12 total first years, seven Elis made that list.
Despite the lack of top talent in the beginning, Shay slowly laid the bricks and built a culture of success until Yale grew into its current status as a top program in the nation.
“Shay knew he wouldn’t have the most talent, but he and the other coaches emphasized hard work and hustle,” said Ryan McQuaide ’18, a member of the 2018 national championship squad. “Players give everything they have at all times. … Coach Shay and all those alumni and upperclassmen had laid down that foundation of an extremely strong culture regardless of your position of playing time over the years before my arrival in 2014. … There was an idea that everyone had a contribution to make and no man was more important over the others. We had this slogan, ONE: Only Need Everybody.”
Although Yale eventually found superstars in players like 2018 Tewaaraton Award winner Ben Reeves ’18, faceoff specialist TD Ierlan ’20, attackman Jackson Morrill ’20 and defenseman Chris Fake ’21, Shay still stresses the importance of the unit. The head coach does not like to rely on talent plays and emphasizes fundamentals to give his team an edge, attackman/midfielder Brady McDermott ’22 said.
In Yale’s most recent game versus Penn State, nine different players found the back of the net, and top end goal scoring is currently shared by five teammates, further exemplifying the results of Shay’s efforts.
Shay also extends his influence beyond the lacrosse field.
“He’s very inviting and always open to talk about anything,” McQuaide said. “He’s one of the most humble, unbelievable guys I’ve ever met, but he’s more than deserving of getting credit for what he’s done: helping us to grow not only as lacrosse players but as men too.”
Through the ups and the downs, the wins and the losses, the number one rankings and exclusion from polls altogether, Shay has been there, pacing along the sidelines. Although a few of his hairs have grayed since that first season over a decade ago, his commitment to making Yale the hardest working team in college lacrosse has remained constant.
Other coaches recognize the reasons for Shay’s success, as well.
“Coach Shay has built his program from the ground up over many years,” UPenn head coach Mike Murphy said. “It seems to be built on toughness, good athletes and simple fundamentals executed with great effort.”
No. 6 Virginia head coach Lars Tiffany added to the praise, telling the News that Shay is an “innovative thinker” in the industry and that he puts his team in a fantastic position to win because “his men have a powerful belief in their systems.”
“I don’t like to take any credit,” Shay told the News. “I think this is the confluence of a phenomenal institution that attracts phenomenal people. … To be perfectly honest, the best we’ve had has a lot to do with the fact that our admissions office kind of demands that we have high character individuals. Not just really smart kids, but we have to peel back the layers and find out more about their character than their grades and SATs. Those strictures have made us better in finding those types of kids. The challenge itself has aided in us finding better candidates than we would if we were left to our own devices.”
Shay’s reputation precedes him, but all of that credit is well-deserved, Alessi, McQuaide and several other alumni and current players emphasized — since taking over the Yale men’s lacrosse program in 2003, he has exceeded all expectations and done more than anyone could have asked.
The Yale men’s lacrosse team was founded in 1881.
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