Keys to the game: How Yale advances to its first Final Four since 1990

Courtesy Steve Musco

The Yale men’s lacrosse team has not made the NCAA Final Four since 1990. On Saturday, the No. 3 Bulldogs have a chance to punch their ticket when they take on No. 6 Loyola in the quarterfinal.

Led by Tewaaraton Award finalist Pat Spencer and a top-notch defense, the Greyhounds — who have never lost to Yale — will be a tough out. For the Bulldogs to continue their historic season, they must win faceoffs, receive contributions from their midfielders and get some big saves from their rookie goaltender.

1) Dominate at the faceoff X

Loyola will bring the nation’s fifth-best offense to Hempstead, New York on Saturday. While Yale will have two first team All-Americans to guard the Greyhound offense in defender Chris Fake ’21 and midfielder Tyler Warner ’18, the Elis’ best defense might be at the faceoff X.

The game of lacrosse is simple: you can’t score if you don’t have the ball. At times this year, struggles at the faceoff X have plagued the Greyhounds by keeping the ball out of the sticks of their offensive threats. Loyola ranks 56th of 69 Division I teams in faceoff percentage, winning just 43.2 percent of its draws this season.

On the other sideline, facing off has been one of Yale’s strengths this year. Midfielder Conor Mackie ’18 has won 64.3 percent of his faceoffs this season, the seventh most in the nation. In last weekend’s first-round game, Mackie went up against UMass’ Noah Rak — considered one of the nation’s best from the X — and secured 69 percent of the draws.

The opportunity is there for Yale to crush Loyola at the X, giving more possessions to the nation’s second-best offense and less to Loyola’s fifth-ranked unit. If Mackie plays as well as he did last weekend, Yale will have the ball for the majority of the game and the rest of the Xs and Os might not matter.

2) Get the midfield involved

When Yale’s offense has been at its best this year, it has received significant contributions from its midfielders. In the Bulldogs’ statement win — a 14–6 throttling of No. 2 Albany — Yale’s midfielders scored seven of the team’s 14 goals.

However, the midfield has taken a backseat to Yale’s attacking unit in the last few games. Yale’s midfielders combined for just two goals in its Ivy championship loss to Cornell and just three against UMass.

Loyola first-team All-American defender Foster Huggins will likely guard either attacker Ben Reeves ’18 or attacker Jackson Morrill ’20, and the Greyhounds have a full week to scout how they will limit the duo of Yale attackers.

If midfielders Jack Tigh ’19, Joe Sessa ’19, Jeff Daniggelis ’19 and Lucas Cotler ’20 can tally a couple of points early in the game, they will draw attention away from Reeves and Morrill and make it impossible for Loyola to guard all of Yale’s offensive weapons.

3) Starr doesn’t need to be a star, but must make key saves

Yale’s defense has done a good job limiting the shots that goaltender Jack Starr ’21 has faced during his rookie season, and the Washington D.C. native has settled in nicely during his first year in New Haven.

He made 10 saves in the win over Albany that put Yale atop the national rankings, and stopped 15 shots when the Bulldogs beat UMass in the regular season. But Starr has also had his struggles this year, making just two saves in Yale’s 14–8 loss to Cornell in the Ivy League championship.

Yale’s goalies have not played well in the NCAA Tournament over the last few years. In Yale’s first-round exits in 2016 and 2017, the Eli netminders made just six and five saves, respectively. Loyola boasts one of the best shooting percentages in the nation, so there is no doubt that Starr will be tested in the quarterfinal showdown.  

Starr does not need to make 15 saves for Yale to beat Loyola on Saturday, but he needs more than five. If the rookie can make seven or eight saves — particularly in the critical junctures of the game when a stop can change the momentum of the contest — Yale is strong enough on offense to advance to its first Final Four since 1990.