The 2014 season is months away. Let's punch fate in the face and make wild assumptions about what could be the best 20 teams in the country next year.
Important People: Brandon Mangan (A); Deron Dempster (A); Conrad Oberbeck (A); Dylan Leavings (FOGO); Jimmy Craft (LSM); Colin Flaherty (M)
Formerly Important People: Kirby Zdrill (A); Peter Johnson (D); Michael McCormack (D); Michael Lipin (M)
Final 2013 Poll Positions: Media: 7; Coaches: 11
2013 Record: 12-5 (4-2, Ivy)
2013 Snapshot: Kaboom!
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The stabilization and thrust of Yale's goalkeeping situation is an area of concern. While Eric Natale played fairly well in 2013 (especially toward the end of the season), the junior keeper hasn't put together a long resume that indicates that he's poised for a season where the Bulldogs can rely on him to make tons of stops to end defensive possessions with a mere jabbing of his hands. His 2013 backup -- Jack Meyer -- has struggled to put together continually distinguished play between the pipes (Meyer earned 13 starts for the Bulldogs in 2012, a campaign that saw him finish the year with just a 48.7 save percentage). This is troubling for a handful of reasons: (1) The Bulldogs are retooling their defensive look in 2014 with the graduations of Johnson and McCormack, defensive menaces that were seemingly able to end defensive opportunities before Natale ever needed to make a save; and (2) Natale could be asked to make more stops in 2014 as the Elis may not be able to cause as many turnovers as they did a season ago, taking on greater responsibility to kill defensive possessions. This is a difficult combination for a keeper to work within -- a potentially important change in the construct of the field defense's performance layered over increased responsibility from a keeper that hasn't faced the pressure that he may face in 2014 could yield uneven results. Now, Yale has important defensive returnees -- Michael Quinn, Craft, Alexander Otero, etc. -- but things necessarily take on a different feel and direction when two high-caliber players walk out the door (especially when those players' value were greater than their individual accomplishments).
A Thousand White Doves
Here's the good news: Yale has been through the fire and survived. The Elis are defending back-to-back Ivy League titles, and have won those championships against solid conference opponents. Andy Shay is building something different in New Haven; the Bulldogs don't have a deep and established lacrosse tradition, yet the Elis -- over the last two seasons -- have played at an elite level. What's most impressive about Yale is that during the 2013 season the Bulldogs seemingly improved as the season went on against a murderous schedule. If Yale is able to accomplish that again in 2014 -- building with what's on the roster and playing like nails when other teams fall to pieces -- the Elis should be in good shape. And it's not just that Yale has a recent legacy of pure grit that overcomes limitations that makes the Bulldogs a potentially strong club this coming spring -- the Elis have some nice pieces to work with, too. The attack -- Mangan, Dempster, and Oberbeck -- is talented and capable, a unit that can drive the Bulldogs' offense against notable competition. The midfield is a construction zone, but Flaherty is a nice asset to anchor that unit, Harry Kucharczyk transitioned fairly well from a short-stick defensive middie role in 2012, and Ryan McCarthy got some important run with the first line last season. Yale should also play with a hefty positive possession margin in 2014 as well, returning one of the nation's best faceoff cats in Leavings, allowing the offense to dictate pace and erase some of their blind spots. There are gaps and holes and concerns, but the Bulldogs control their circumstances well and that's the most important feature of their play entering the coming spring.
The Stars, The Moon, Six Feet Under
The Stars: Yale extends its NCAA Tournament appearance streak to three years in a row, the longest streak in program history; Mangan recovers from surgery without complications and continues to rank among the Ivy League’s most productive players, driving the Elis offense; Natale sits around 56 percent in the cage and becomes the backstop that the Bulldogs have been hoping for; top two in the Ivy League and on par with Princeton.
The Moon: Ivy League Tournament participant that gets hot at the right time of the season; questions in the midfield and on the defensive end are quickly alleviated and cohesion appears relatively early in the season; Yale is top five in possession margin and Leavings is offered for sainthood.
Six Feet Under: Midfield fails to coalesce and defense struggles at causing turnovers, pushing the Elis toward the meaty middle of the national picture; Dempster is slow to recover from his year away from Division I competition; the defense struggles to transition from the Johnson-McCormack years and fails to generate an identity; the Bulldogs are on the outside of the NCAA Tournament.