TJ Bryan won 17 of 27 faceoffs in his only action of the 2021 season, Dartmouth's 15-9 loss to Tufts.

The State of Ivy League Lacrosse 'A Colossal Unknown'

A mostly normal looking fall has brought the return of joy and optimism, and also curiosity, to the Ivy League, the only Division I conference that did not play games last spring. Ivy schools have their full teams back. They’ve been practicing, and they’ve played in fall ball events.

“It feels like a very long time,” Cornell women’s coach Jenny Graap said. “The joy and excitement was really, really palpable. It was awesome.”

Fall ball is giving coaches an early look at the great mystery of how good any of the Ivy teams will be. Almost none of them have played in the last 18 months. The Penn women beat LaSalle in their only contest last spring. The Penn men beat Division III Cabrini. Dartmouth’s men’s and women’s teams both lost to Division III Tufts with reduced rosters and minimal practice time. The Dartmouth women also played and beat St. Michael’s College.

“I think it’s a colossal unknown,” Yale men’s coach Andy Shay said. “When you do a scouting report, you go into last year’s document and delete the seniors and add a few young guys that are playing and off you go. Now it’s going to be, delete two whole classes maybe. It’s going to be a big unknown.”

It would be one thing if the Ivy League could just pick up where it left off following the conference’s announcement on March 11, 2020, that all spring sports were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On the women’s side, Dartmouth was unbeaten and ranked No. 6 in the Nike / USA Lacrosse Division I Women’s Top 20. Penn (No. 11) and Princeton (No. 17) were considered dangerous. On the men’s side, the Ivies were making national noise. Princeton and Cornell were unbeaten and ranked Nos. 2 and 3, respectively. Yale was No. 5. Penn sat at No. 19, and Brown moved to No. 20 after beating defending 2019 champion Virginia. Dartmouth was 3-0, and Harvard had beaten nationally ranked UMass in the season opener. Teams would love to be able to pick right up from there.

“I’d like to think there will be some strong Ivy teams,” Princeton men’s coach Matt Madalon said. “Every university was able to handle their roster and withdraws a little differently, the gap years and retaining guys, the ability to go for an extra year. I have no idea how it shakes out. I think every team could be really good.”

Coaches are trying to make up an experience gap with each working off last year’s unique foundation. How each program handled itself during the pandemic varied. Those that had the chance to work with players on their campuses did so mostly on an individual level with skill work getting most of the emphasis. They are spending the fall sorting out their teams’ strengths and weaknesses with programs having most of their players back.

“It doesn’t feel normal at all,” Shay said. “It feels a lot like my first year here, to be honest, because we didn’t really coach our sophomores at all.”

“It doesn’t feel normal at all.”

— Andy Shay

The Harvard men had only nine freshmen on campus in the fall of 2020, and six players in the spring of 2021. The team stayed connected reading ‘Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage,’ a book about the British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s will to survive after his journey of discovery goes wrong. Coach Gerry Byrne doled out assignments to his team spread far and wide but left it up to them to lead discussions and push each other through training on their own.

“When they finally got a chance to come back to campus, their bodies were ready. They were super engaged, they were obviously thrilled to get back on the field together,” Byrne said. “I trusted the leadership to our players, and they embraced it and led. And so when they came back, we just carried the momentum that they had from those 18 months that they were gone.”

Byrne was on the cusp of coaching his first Ivy game ever when the season was shut down. It’s the same for Connor Buczek, who had the interim title lifted at Cornell after last spring despite not coaching a game in his first season at the helm.

“Last year was a lot more of a guidance counselor role rather than a lacrosse coach, just because of where we were and what we were preparing for and how we were managing the day to day,” Buczek said. “It’s nice to be back out on the field and to being a lacrosse coach with a full roster on campus.”

Cornell felt fortunate to have its full teams on campus last fall. That excitement was tempered when they were reduced to 10-person cohorts that became skill sessions with contact being outlawed.

“We were often on the same field at the same time, but there was still this distance that was necessitated for safety,” Graap said. “It was pretty hard to instruct a 1-v-1 when you’re defender and you can’t be within six feet of your attacker.”

The Dartmouth women had more than half of its team available in the spring, but others took off a semester and reworked their academic plan so they could keep athletic eligibility. The Big Green are back on campus and excited about what they have seen after three weeks.

“We’ll build a lot on the individual skill because we spent so much time on individual skills on those days where we couldn’t have contact,” Dartmouth women’s coach Alex Frank said. “It’s not necessarily building on the bigger concepts but really taking advantage of that time spent with our players and building into the bigger concepts now that we’re all together.”

Princeton had no students on campus last fall. The Princeton women had 19 players take a leave for the year. The men’s team had only 16 present in the spring, and most of them were younger players who are now surrounded this fall by the experienced players who have returned.

“So, it’s making sure our first years and second years that were on campus last year are truly acclimated to the program an how we do things,” Madalon said. “That’s probably the biggest challenge. Outside of that, our guys are incredibly buttoned up. Priorities remain very dialed in. As much as they were off campus and away from the university, we had guys live together, train together, all the entire time away they were together. We’re really proud of how our group handled being away from Princeton, and it’s going to help us take steps this year.”

Penn had all but one member of its men’s team on campus last spring after not allowing students on campus last fall. Their team penned a letter in February to the Ivy League Presidents and Athletic Directors outlining why spring competition should be permitted, but the Quakers only had the one game that they won over Cabrini, 23-9. Their time together in the spring, though, proved useful.

“We improved more last spring than probably any team I’ve been a part of over the course of a three-month period,” Penn coach Mike Murphy said. “We practiced every day. We’re out there basically six days a week. We did intrasquad scrimmages on Saturdays. Without scouting, all the time and energy was focused on us.”

The Penn women beat LaSalle 16-11 in a nice sendoff for the seniors. Penn lost one contributor, Michaela McMahon, who transferred to USC in the spring semester last year, and Penn lost a little more experience with Abby Busco using her graduate year of eligibility at Maryland this coming spring.

“It’s a lot of teaching,” Penn women’s coach Karin Corbett said. “None of the Ivies except for Princeton have a lot of experience coming back. Unlike a lot of these teams that have fifth-years, we have a lot of young kids who didn’t get on the field. It’s anybody’s game to get out there. We only have two kids with a lot of experience.”


Kyla Sears withdrew from Princeton last season to retain a year of eligibility.

The Yale men only had two players on campus in the spring with the rest withdrawing to save eligibility. The Yale men lost TD Ierlan to Denver last spring. Some Ivy players can’t return until the spring semester, but most have returned this fall.

“There has been a lot of attrition,” Byrne said. “Half the team is recruits and half the team is guys you were able to coach at some level. All the teams lost some of their biggest contributors.”

Competition in fall ball is wide open with first- and second-year students trying to pick up the speed of the game at the college level and older players trying to guide and also secure their spots.

“I think the biggest problem that we have is the pace of practice is not what we expect of it,” Shay said. “We used to have 35 guys yelling at 10 or 11 guys to pick it up. Now we have 20 guys yelling at a little less than 30 guys to pick it up.”

The Ivy League’s increase of fall practice limitations from 24 hours to 32 this year will help some, though every program could use more as they try to make up for lost time. There is more time spent teaching than usual, and more holes to fill than most programs are accustomed to having. Teams are leaning on what experience they do have. At Penn, Jack Shultz and Ben Bedard are back as graduate students, taking advantage of this year’s Ivy exception to its usual rule that prohibits graduate students.

“I would say we’re a veteran team that’s very inexperienced,” Murphy said. “Our seniors played their freshmen year, and some of them played meaningful roles and some of them didn’t. Then they played five games as sophomores and that’s it. The juniors have five games of experience. The freshmen and sophomores have no experience.”

There is more onus on the coaches to use their limited time in the fall efficiently. Fall ball events will give them a measuring stick against programs that did play last spring, and every chance is an opportunity for their players.

“That lack of game experience is going to be something we’re going to try our best to take advantage of this fall and every time we play to teach and teach what it’s like,” Frank said. “We don’t have players who know what it’s like when the game’s on the line. We had one overtime game a year-and-a-half ago. Hopefully some of them remember what that feels like, but who knows? It’s been so long.”


Harvard’s Fred Asare-Konadu worked on a voter registration initiative that would require Florida high school seniors be given a presentation on voter registration … Cornell’s Katie Castielllo was the social media coordinator overseeing the Instagram and Twitter accounts for Inside Lacrosse … Penn’s Niki Miles taught children in Tanzania … Over 35 of Harvard’s men’s players lived and trained together in Atlanta in the spring of 2021 … Cornell coach Connor Buczek’s PLL season means that he has played more games than any of his players over the last year … Yale captain Brian Tevlin coached last spring at his alma mater, Seton Hall Prep (N.J.).