PHOTO BY RICH BARNES

Andy Shay's former players say it was only a matter of time before he learned how to win with the kinds of players who attend the academically rigorous Ivy League institution.

Yale Lacrosse: From Ivy Afterthought to National Champion


In the immediate aftermath of the greatest ending to the best season in Yale men’s lacrosse history, the images involving Bulldogs head coach Andy Shay captured the emotions of and the roots behind Yale’s journey to the pinnacle.

The final horn of Yale’s hard-fought 13-11 victory over Duke on Memorial Day set the pictures in motion.

Of course, the Bulldogs, NCAA champs for the first time ever, let loose with a cathartic celebration — players mobbing each other, Shay getting drenched, exhausted and euphoric coaches and players embracing amid tears of joy. Shay then headed straight for his wife, Sheila, and their sons, Logan and Griffin and daughter, Everly, for kisses and hugs.

Then, Shay made a beeline toward a front row area at Gillette Stadium, where some of Yale’s old guard applauded — players who had worn the uniform in the days when the Bulldogs were just trying to make hay in the Ivy League, never mind being the last team standing.

And there they were — Greg DuBoff and Tyler Casertano, each from the Class of 2008, each a part of Shay’s first recruiting class — leaning over the front row to greet Shay below, Casertano clasping Shay’s right with both of his, DuBoff with his right hand on Shay’s back, Shay bowing his head, emotions flowing.

It was a moment felt by a huge throng of Yale fans gathered in Foxborough that day, bearing witness to a school-record 17th victory that affirmed Shay’s vision of what could happen in New Haven down the road after he took over as a first-time head coach in 2003.

“We didn’t even dream of doing this [when I played]. What an incredibly special moment that was,” said Casertano days later, as the Memorial Day memory sunk in for the former Yale attackman.

“This team was the validation of Coach Shay’s methodology and willpower,” he added. “They never played with arrogance. We never worried [this year] how they would handle the moment. They had so much depth, speed, confidence and poise. We knew it was a matter of time.”

“Andy always knew what he wanted. He just had to figure out how to make it happen at a place like Yale,” said DuBoff, who was a lightly recruited faceoff specialist under Shay. “He tried to set a tone with my class. We were not a pure success story. I wouldn’t even have played college lacrosse, if it wasn’t for Coach Shay.

“That’s how much the talent level has grown. But Andy also had to figure out how to change the culture. It’s counter-cultural at a place like Yale to experience delayed gratification. The highly intelligent students who come to Yale aren’t used to that. [Winning a title] doesn’t happen overnight.”

Besides sustaining a higher level of lacrosse over the past decade — Yale is 103-40 over the past nine straight winning seasons under Shay — the Bulldogs have achieved that exceptional student-athlete balance.

That balance is best typified by attackman Ben Reeves, who solidified his place as the premier player in school history — and arguably one of the best of all time — as a senior in 2018 by becoming the school’s first Tewaaraton Award winner.

Reeves, a three-time first-team All-American, three-time Tewaaraton finalist and the top goals and overall scorer in Yale history, also brought a 3.89 GPA into the postseason as a molecular, cellular and developmental biology major.


“Whenever I’ve tried to cover Ben Reeves, I’ve realized I’m not playing professionally anymore. He moves like a figure skater who can run you over. This team was full of guys like that. Too strong, too fast, too deep and too good.” — Peter Johnson ’13


Shay has reflected a lot on the growth of his program since Yale erased three years of NCAA tournament first-round losses with its 4-0 postseason run. After overcoming a first-quarter deficit against UMass in the first round, Yale, which had been upset by Cornell, 14-8, in the Ivy tournament title game, never trailed again as the third seed in the NCAAs.

“As long as I’ve been doing this, I’ve wanted to win a national championship,” Shay said. “I’ve sometimes wondered, ‘Would I have wanted this to be any easier?’ I remember standing on the field before we played [Albany] on Saturday [in the semifinals] thinking, ‘Is this really happening?’”

“Our goals this year were obvious, but we kept that [championship] talk at arm’s length,” he added. “I told them every week that they could be better, and I wasn’t lying. We never played a perfect game. But we usually played with an edge.”

Oh, did Yale ever. It fielded the sport’s most lethal combination of offense, defense, athleticism, skill and depth. Its senior class would produce a Division I-leading and school-record six Major League Lacrosse draft picks.

And the Bulldogs played with attitude and blue-collar toughness, which Shay has made a team identity staple for the past decade. No one bullied opponents in 2018 the way Yale did with its aggressive rides. No one sustained a better tempo in the six-on-six game.

And no one could match Yale’s physicality — partly the product of Shay’s decision four years ago to lean hard on assistant strength and conditioning coach Tom Newman to beef up the roster and maximize its conditioning and athleticism with tailored workout and nutrition regimens.

Former Yale star defenseman Peter Johnson, who led the Class of 2013 with fellow defenseman Mike McCormack — they were the backbone of a program-changing group — has gotten a taste of Yale’s beef up close, as a competitor in the annual alumni game.

“We alums like to think we can field a pretty good squad, but a few of our guys have kind of gotten mowed over,” said Johnson, who was in Foxborough to watch Yale make history.

“Whenever I’ve tried to cover Ben Reeves, I’ve realized I’m not playing professionally anymore,” he added. “He moves like a figure skater who can run you over. This team was full of guys like that. They were just too strong, too fast, too deep and too good.”

“The depth of this team is something we never had,” recalled McCormack. “We were always on the cusp [of greatness], but we didn’t quite have all of the dots connected.”

PHOTOS COURTESY OF YALE ATHLETICS

Defensemen Peter Johnson (31) and Mike McCormack were the backbone of Yale’s class of 2013, a group that turned the tide for the Bulldogs.

Johnson and McCormack led a defense that defined Yale’s early progress, after the Bulldogs went through growing pains in Shay’s early years — four losing seasons in his first six seasons.

When they were freshmen in 2010, Johnson and McCormack, along with four-year starting attackman Brendan Gibson, led the Bulldogs to their first 10-win season under Shay and a share of the Ivy League regular season crown. Yale earned a spot in the inaugural Ivy tournament. The Bulldogs bowed out, 7-6, against Princeton, but the bar was rising.

Two years later in 2012, the bar was lifted some more, as Yale won its 11th game by winning its first conference tournament to make its first NCAA tournament since 1992.

Although Notre Dame knocked out Yale easily in the first round, a year later the Bulldogs broke through another barrier by beating Penn State, 10-7, to take its first NCAA tournament win under Shay. A week later, Yale outplayed Syracuse for nearly three quarters, but could not hold a two-goal lead in the closing minutes, before dropping a crushing 7-6 decision in the quarterfinal round.

The Bulldogs missed the NCAAs in 2014. The class led by Reeves arrived in New Haven after that, but the postseason frustration continued. Each of their three Ivy League championships was followed by a first-round exit from the NCAA tournament.








Since the Bulldogs broke through completely last month, Shay has thought about the early days marked by futility. At age 32, he left his job as defensive and recruiting coordinator at UMass under coach Greg Cannella — the teacher he would beat in this year’s hotly contested first-round game, 15-13 — to come to New Haven.

“I was pretty much a psycho when I got here — unsettled and easily irritable,” recalled Shay, who had yet to marry and become a father.

Shay doesn’t readily admit how his former players say it changed him, but he does concede that, in the months that followed the 2008 season — a 4-10 finish and 0-6 collapse in Ivy play — a major health scare may have left him with a changed perspective on his coaching approach.

For several years, Shay had suffered from inexplicable back pain. In November of that year, Shay, now married with two young sons, underwent a very risky, 10-hour neck surgery at New Haven Hospital to remove a large benign tumor on his spine.

“I admit it was scary, very scary for my wife,” Shay said. “I still think I’m the same guy.”

The surgery, which Shay said doctors rated “as a 12 on a degree-of-difficulty scale of 1 to 10,” was successful. Shay was out of the hospital in three days and had a remarkably smooth recovery. By the time the Bulldogs opened their preseason in 2009, Shay was right on schedule.

DuBoff and Casertano said the scare did something to Shay, who essentially to them is still the same hard-driving leader who handed out an expectations letter to his first team that inspired a sizeable number of Bulldogs to quit.

Shay still demands physical and mental toughness of his players and guarantees nothing, even to his stars. He still will not permit the sports information department to list the dates of the Ivy or NCAA tournaments each season, until the Bulldogs have officially earned entry to them.

“I think Coach had to settle in at a university that places a lot of different pressures and priorities on its students,” Casertano said. “He had to learn more about what type of kid was going to be his type of recruit. Regardless of your family’s socio-economic status, [Shay] will turn you into a blue-collar player.”

“Don’t get me wrong, Coach Shay is 100-percent human. He has a really fun side, without losing his edge,” DuBoff added. “But I think he’s learned to compartmentalize, instead of trying to get his program to a certain stage [too quickly]. He’s more about the process and doing the little things to get better every day. He’s always ready to fight for his guys.”




PHOTO BY GREG WALL

Tewaaraton winner Ben Reeves represented the perfect blend of student and athlete, becoming Yale's all-time leading scorer while compiling a 3.89 GPA as a molecular, cellular and developmental biology major.


The Bulldogs were the picture of fight in 2018. And after Cornell handed them their third defeat in the Ivy tournament final, Yale was galvanized, focused and ready to wield its potent resources in the biggest games.

Yale battled back early to counter a well-prepared UMass squad and pull away in the second half, as attackman Jackson Morrill ruled the day with seven goals.

In the quarterfinals, the Bulldogs battled through a driving rainstorm and goalie Jacob Stover’s 19 saves to turn back Loyola 8-5 by holding the Greyhounds to one goal in the last 38 minutes, while Conor Mackie won 12 of 17 faceoffs and Reeves led the way with six points.

In the semifinals, Yale pounced on Albany by scoring the game’s first seven goals, and the Great Danes never got closer than four in a 20-11 rout.

In the final, Matt Gaudet completed his 10-goal weekend with four scores, freshman goalie Jack Starr played his best game with 11 saves, Mackie fought through a wrist injury with heroic faceoff wins, and the Bulldogs won seemingly every key ground ball down the stretch to seal it. Yale had every answer on offense and defense.

“That game was us playing with Coach Shay’s mentality,” Mackie said nearly a week after the Bulldogs did their victory lap at Gillette Stadium. “It’s not the talent plays that win games like that down the stretch. It’s ground balls and hustle plays. It’s fundamental plays.”

“As good as we were this year, as well as our guys embraced their roles and as tough as we were, we were really good in the NCAA tournament,” Shay said. “We were the best version of us.”