April 17, 2013

Yale Out of Dark Ages and into Ivy Spotlight

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

Junior faceoff specialist Dylan Levings has followed up an excellent 2012 by winning 63 percent of his draws this season. He's part of a group that's changed the lacrosse culture at Yale.
© Lee Weissman

As a three-year starter, Yale senior defenseman Peter Johnson has been on board throughout the Bulldogs' evolutionary ride upward. And Johnson looked at Yale's latest victory as another snapshot revealing the fiber of a program revived.

On Monday night, the 12th-ranked Bulldogs, possibly peeking ahead to Saturday's trip to College Park to face heavyweight Maryland, were in serious trouble against visiting, unranked Stony Brook. After managing only four goals through three quarters and trailing the Seawolves by three early in the fourth, Yale had cut Stony Brook's lead to 10-8 with less than five minutes to go.

Not long ago, Yale would have faded and taken the loss. Not these Bulldogs. Not a team that, under 10th-year coach Andy Shay, roared its way to a surprising, Ivy League championship by last season by edging Cornell and blowing out Princeton to make its first NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years.

First, junior attackman Brandon Mangan showed his value as Yale's go-to guy by scoring his third goal and fifth point of the evening to pull the Bulldogs within one with 4:03 left in regulation. Sophomore attackman Conrad Oberbeck tied the score at 10-10 with 1:56 left in regulation. Then, with 84 seconds left in overtime, sophomore midfielder Harry Kucharczyk, who has marked much of his time in New Haven as a utility man with a short and long stick on defense, scored the game winner.

To Johnson, the Stony Brook result — the fifth consecutive victory for the Bulldogs — perfectly illustrated the Yale identity.

"We played terribly for 45 minutes. Then, we committed some acts of sheer brilliance at the right time," said Johnson, alluding to Yale's six-goal fourth quarter. "Stony Brook brought out this part of us that's become our M.O. It's about winning a battle, being the grittier team."

Of course, it's also about talent, which is an important reason Yale (8-3) appears headed for its fourth straight season with double-digit victories and is in decent shape to get an at-large bid to the NCAAs, should it falter in the Ivy tournament as a likely No. 3 seed.

The Bulldogs have collected key wins against No. 10 Albany and league rival Penn, while losing by a combined three goals to Ivy stalwarts Cornell and Princeton.

They have done it because scorers such as Mangan (25 goals, 19 assists) and Oberbeck (23 goals) have carried the offense. They have fed off of junior faceoff specialist Dylan Levings, who has followed up an excellent 2012 by winning 63 percent of his draws. They have leaned on defensive anchors down low such as seniors Michael McCormack and Johnson, who consistently has covered opposing top scorers while causing a team-high 21 turnovers.

But Shay said Yale has turned the corner in recent years because the Bulldogs have grown thicker skin and found role players that have taken turns stepping up in the clutch. Think of Kucharczyk scoring his only goal of the night to beat Stony Brook.

"I wouldn't say we weren't ready for Stony Brook. But they played harder. I'd even go so far as to say they should have won," Shay said. "But our kids knuckled down and won. We've been in that situation so many times against so many different teams. We have a running statement around here — Everybody Is Good. There are no easy games anymore. We've recruited tougher kids to help us end up on the better side of those."

Translation: Like so many schools in the era of increasing parity, Yale has been the recipient of solid players who don't land atop recruiting ranking lists, yet have developed nicely.

And the Bulldogs, like other teams in the increasingly rough-and-tumble Ivy League, have found nastier competitors to help them pull closer to Cornell, who started to take the mantle from longtime king Princeton nearly a decade ago by recruiting upgraded talent with some blue-collar bully in it.

Johnson, a first-team All-Ivy performer a year ago, has seen the same thing happen in New Haven. He has seen the personality of the program change by incorporating more edge and fortitude.

Johnson pointed to his freshman year, when he and incoming classmates such as McCormack, along with then-sophomores such as future star attackman Matt Gibson, were injecting a needed adjustment into the school's somewhat casual lacrosse culture.

He recalled an ex-football player named Eric Gresham, a very raw lacrosse talent who only got into five games over two seasons, yet altered the tone of practice on defense — by the way he simply enjoyed blocking opposing shots with his body.

"Back in the dark ages, we had guys showing up late to lift [weights] and things like that. Our [freshman] class was just blessed to be able to come in and play," Johnson said. "Eric would jump in the way of any shot and say 'Yeah!' every time he got hit. It was almost as if he was soaking up shots for breakfast. Guys wouldn't soak up shots around here before that."

They are soaking up shots and wins at Yale now. The Bulldogs have won at least 10 games in each of the past three seasons and won the regular-season Ivy title in 2010. Then came last year's breakthrough.

After starting the year 2-4, including losses to Cornell and Princeton and a terrible setback against Sacred Heart, the Bulldogs acquired a sense of urgency and ran off a nine-game winning streak. That included four, one-goal wins, three of them in overtime. The ride culminated with the Ivy championship, thanks to a 15-7 rout over Princeton.

All of which points to what could be quite an altercation at No. 4 Maryland on Saturday. The Terps are 9-1 all-time against Yale and beat the Bulldogs handily in 2007, 2008 and 2009, the last time the two teams faced each other. Back in those dark ages, Yale was a mere tune-up for the Terps before the NCAA tournament.

"Back then, a W over us didn't really help Maryland and a loss would really hurt them," Johnson said. "Now, we're at one of those points where everybody has got their eye out for everybody."

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