The Penn men's lacrosse team huddles up before a Feb. 29 game against Penn State at Franklin Field.

Promising Ivy League Lacrosse Season Comes to Abrupt and Painful End

Gerry Byrne sympathizes with seasons suddenly lost. Notre Dame even had a playbook, of sorts, when it came to abrupt and unsatisfying endings and locker rooms full of virile 18- to 22-year-old young men reduced to tears.

The Fighting Irish advanced to the NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament every year during Byrne’s 13 seasons as an assistant coach, making it to the championship weekend four times and twice finishing with the euphemistic designation of national runner-up.

But there’s a stark contrast between those experiences, Byrne said, and what he witnessed Wednesday, when the first-year Harvard head coach broke the news to his players that the Ivy League had canceled all spring sports due to the novel coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.

Those Notre Dame teams had some say in the outcome. The Crimson had none.

“I was in that situation too many times in my past life. It never minimized the rawness and the honesty of it,” Byrne said Wednesday evening. “What happens on the field, you can deal with it. It’s binary. It’s numerical. They made more plays than you did. You don’t have to love it, but you had your shot. It’s the surprising nature of this and the lack of control that makes it worse.”

Surprised. Devastated. Blindsided. Sad for the seniors. These sentiments echoed in the comments and reactions of several Ivy League coaches reached by US Lacrosse Magazine in the wake of Wednesday’s news, which stung all the more considering how strong the conference was this season.

“I am devastated,” Yale coach Andy Shay said when reached for comment by US Lacrosse Magazine. “I just don’t want to talk about it.”

“What happens on the field, you can deal with it. It’s binary. It’s numerical. It’s the surprising nature of this and the lack of control that makes it worse.”

Princeton and Cornell are both undefeated and ranked in the top five of the Nike/US Lacrosse Division I Men’s Top 20, at No. 2 and No. 3, respectively. No. 5 Yale has advanced to the NCAA championship game the last two years and won it all in 2018. Who knows what No. 19 Penn might have been capable of once they got Sam Handley back? Brown debuted this week at No. 20 after taking down defending NCAA champion Virginia on the same day it unveiled the brand-new Center for Lacrosse and Soccer at Stevenson-Pincince Field. Dartmouth started 3-0 for the first time since 2006. Harvard knocked off nationally ranked UMass in its opener.

“Totally blindsided by the announcement,” Brown coach Mike Daly said in a text message. “Devastated for our team and especially our seniors.”

There was not a single weak link in the Ivy League. It had the look of a four- or even five-bid league capable of sending multiple teams to championship weekend. Now there’s nothing to bid for at all.

It also would not have been surprising to see Princeton’s Michael Sowers, Yale’s TD Ierlan and Cornell’s Jeff Teat all standing on the stage at the Tewaaraton Award ceremony vying for the highest individual honor in college lacrosse. Now they’ll have to hope the NCAA grants them and other Ivy Leaguers an additional year of eligibility. Even then there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to use it at their current schools.

Penn coach Mike Murphy found out about the Ivy League’s decision in the middle of practice Wednesday. The Quakers were preparing to open conference play Saturday at Princeton. Murphy pulled the seniors aside at the end and broke the news to them. They were supposed to have a weight-room session. They chose to keep scrimmaging — to play 30 more minutes of lacrosse.

“This is just a lacrosse game, so it’s not the most important thing going on in the world. But it’s probably the most important thing going on for our players,” Murphy said. “The seniors are the ones you really feel for, after having the rug pulled out from under them in such an absolute and final way.”

Both Byrne and Murphy said they trusted that the Ivy League presidents, given their access to some of the world’s foremost medical professionals, are acting in the best interest of the students and campus communities.

For the first time Wednesday, the World Health Organization called the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, a pandemic. More than 1,000 cases have been confirmed in the U.S. Most colleges are clearing campuses of students and instituting remote learning. The NCAA has banned spectators from its March Madness basketball events. Many state and local authorities are placing limits on public gatherings.

“We’re all looking at this through the prism of sport and lacrosse,” Murphy said. “Our universities are trying to do what’s right for the schools themselves and the general community and population.”


Gerry Byrne, the longtime Notre Dame assistant, was in his first season as the head coach at Harvard.

In Cambridge, Byrne had just made final preparations for a team film study when he got the word from Harvard administrators that the Crimson’s season was done.

“How do I soothe the wounds of the student-athletes and also the seniors who will never put on the jersey again?” Byrne said.

Byrne turned to familiar coping strategies despite the extraordinary circumstances. He asked the seniors to speak, to impart words of wisdom on the underclassmen so that they might carry on with the work they started together. The players took turns saying how much they care about each other, what Harvard lacrosse means to them and why they harbor hope for the future of the program.

“I’m unbelievably saddened, but I also have to trust the leadership of Harvard and this league that they know more about this situation than I do,” Byrne said. “As I told the players, if this is the worst day of your life, you’re going to have a pretty good life.”

After the team meeting, without any coaches present, the Crimson suited up together one more time during their regularly scheduled practice time Wednesday. They shot around, ran a few drills and cherished the opportunity to play lacrosse together one last time before leaving campus for who knows how long.

“That’s what the really good teams do, right? They work when no one’s around,” Byrne said. “It’s the pain of potential. We all use the metaphor that you’ve got to practice or play like it’s the last day you’re going to play, and goddamn if it wasn’t true.”

Justin Feil and Nelson Rice contributed to this report.

Get the best and latest from delivered weekly straight to your inbox: