Building a program is a process. The benefits of recruiting don’t show up for years. It’s a test of patience, of sticking to the system and proving to yourself as much as others that the program is on the right track. For Yale, that path began 15 years ago.
Andy Shay took over the Yale program following a 9-5 season filled with hope. After several years in the middle of the Ivy League pack, the Bulldogs began to struggle, bottoming out at 4-10 before slowly building up.
Then 2009 happened.
Yale finished at 10-4, winning a share of the Ivy League before falling in the NCAA tournament to Princeton.
Things were starting to look up.
But a national championship?
It’s something the program believed in, even then. Athletic director Tom Beckett saw what Shay was building.
“I said in 2013, I’ll never forget, we were in my hotel room before the Syracuse game, and we were talking about this kid that we got, Matt Gaudet, and I said, ‘Tom, you’re going to finish everything. He’s unbelievable. You wait until you see him,’” Shay said.
“He said, ‘I’m going to have to watch it on TV because I’ll be retired by then.’ He said, ‘You’re going to win the national championship, and I’ll be watching it from wherever.’
“I said, ‘You can’t leave until we do.’”
Gaudet earned the national championship MVP as Yale won the national title by fending off Duke, 13-11, on Memorial Day at Gillette Stadium, the first in program history since lacrosse became a varsity sport in 1971.
The group, headed by Tewaaraton Award winner Ben Reeves, wasn’t blowing anyone away when they stepped foot on campus for the first time.
“He came in under-recruited,” Shay said. “He’s an animal in the weight room. He’s developed into this phenomenal player. Everything we tell him, he does.”
Reeves ended up as one of the most dominant players in the nation and earning consideration for Team USA. He led the team in points, but in some ways, he also was just a part of what turned out to be the deepest offensive unit in the country.
In some games, Reeves would take over. In others, like the 20-11 national semifinal victory over Albany, it was Jackson Morrill collecting eight points.
In the championship game, it was Gaudet and Jack Tigh, who had been shut out the game before, producing the bulk of the offense.
But more than anything, it was the intangibles of the group that pushed the Bulldogs to the top. When Reeves had a shot at trying out for — and making — the national squad, his sights were set on a national title, and leading his team.
“I said, ‘You need to go to tryouts. You have to go. This is Team USA,’” Shay said, “and he said, ‘Coach, I’m the captain of this team; I’m staying.’
“Nobody knew that. People thought he was blowing off the tryout, he was hurt, whatever. Ben Reeves said he was captain of the team and turned down a shot at Team USA. And he had a great shot at playing on Team USA.”
Even with Reeves leading the way, the depth of the Bulldogs stood out throughout not just the weekend but also the entire season.
Lucas Cotler scored three times in the first match against Albany in the regular season. John Daniggelis netted two in the quarterfinal against Loyola (Md.). Morrill had seven tallies in the first playoff game against UMass, and Gaudet had seven in the Ivy League playoffs against Penn.
Over championship weekend, it was just whoever could get the job done, the same manner in which Yale approached things all season.
“I thought that our midfielders, and both Ben and Jackson Morrill, were able to draw a lot of attention,” Gaudet said. “As soon as I saw the back of my defender’s helmet, I just went under him. They’d be able to draw the slide and I was able to get my lay-ups. I just owe it all to my teammates.”
Since 2015, when Reeves first joined the program, the Bulldogs have won at least 10 games each season. It was in that season where they started to realize something might be special there, falling to Maryland in the first round of the NCAA tournament by one goal.
“We had a 7-4 or 6-4 lead, whatever that was, late,” Shay said. “We turned the ball over here and there and then came back. But we watched Maryland go to the national championship game, and we felt like we had that. Those seniors were freshmen in that game. We made a lot of that like, ‘Why can’t we be there.’”
The next season ended with another close NCAA loss, to Navy. In 2017, it was another first-round loss, to Syracuse, following a third straight Ivy League title.
That brought them to 2018, where expectations were high. Was this going to be the year the Bulldogs made it past the first round?
After an overtime defeat to Villanova in the season opener, there admittedly were doubts. But Yale stuck with it. With all its leading scorers back but one (Eric Scott), Yale rattled off seven wins in a row before a defeat to Bucknell.
“All the guys that came before us that helped build the culture and build the brand that this program is,” Reeves said. “All the credit to Coach Shay and the rest of the coaching staff. They do a tremendous job every single day getting us ready and building the culture, and just who Yale lacrosse is as a team. It’s tough to put into words, but it’s also the guy to my right, all credit to him.”
It took another six victories for the next loss, in the Ivy League tournament against Cornell, a game in which Reeves took over but the rest of the offense was shut down.
This time, when adversity challenged it, Shay had the background to turn the program in the right direction.
“I think that I had to grow up as a coach, and I’d like to think that I did that after probably ’09,” he said. “Stopped concentrating on the opponent. Especially at an Ivy League school when you don’t have that many practices, you really shouldn’t concentrate on the opponent at all. I started concentrating on ourselves and was able to have kind of that breakout year of first Ivy League title in 2010.”
It’s hard to beat the same team twice in a season, and Yale not only did that to Albany, but it also handed the second-seeded Great Danes their worst defeat of the season in a dominant semifinal showing.
All the depth was on display, from the offense, to Connor Mackie at the faceoff dot, to Chris Fake and Chris Keating (Windham, N.H.) leading the defense.
It all came together and the ultimate prize was achieved two days later. The years of building both sides of the ball, and the middle of the field, and with a freshman in Jack Starr in net, Shay put together a championship team.
“We were one of the better teams at the start of the season, and now we’re the best team at the end,” he said. “That to me is mission accomplished. So I’m proud of our guys.”