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2018 NCAA Division I Men’s Lacrosse Championship: Previewing Duke and Yale

The 2018 season finale pits two teams that are very similar to each other.

Matt Dewkett

The season began February 1 with Vermont crushing Furman in Greenville, South Carolina.

The season ends May 28 with the Duke Blue Devils or the Yale Bulldogs winning the National Championship in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

It’s been a fun ride, but a champion must be crowned. Both of these teams are very similar to each other. Talented attackmen led by seniors who are also Tewaaraton finalists, deep midfield units, stud defensemen, and goalies that are playing their best ball this postseason, as well as having talented FOGOs.

Ask both head coaches, and they see similarities between their programs.

“Coach [John] Danowski and I go way back,” said Yale head coach Andy Shay. “A number of his assistants are my closest friends in the game, number of former assistants. Chris Gabrielli, a former assistant, head coach at Providence, played for me at UMass. Joe Amplo (current head coach at Marquette) is one of my closest friends.

“We’re very similar in how we approach our coaching styles in terms of trying to be fundamental and trying to be process-oriented and worry about ourselves. On the field it looks like they’re an extremely, extremely athletic team. So I’d like to think we’re pretty athletic, but they look pretty impressive on film, so that’s a little scary. But I think we’re both very similar programs in a lot of ways.”

“There’s a toughness,” said Duke head coach John Danowski. “There’s a work-ethic mentality that we both share. I see that in their play. They’re physical, they’re edgy, and I like to think that we look that way too.

“When you’re with your own team every day, you know, you mostly see your warts. You don’t see the good things that your players do. You’re constantly looking to be overly critical of your own team, your own players, your own coaching. You want to get better every day. When you look at your opponent, you only see their great stuff. You don’t see their practices and what their coaches are stressing over. So it’s always kind of fascinating to compare. I’d like to think that both teams have a really incredible work ethic or team centric, team-oriented, and play selflessly.”

Let’s take a look at how the two teams look against each other.

Tale of the Tape: #4 Duke Blue Devils vs. #3 Yale Bulldogs

16-3 Record 16-3
Justin Guterding (64) Goals leader Ben Reeves (61)
Justin Guterding (46) Assists leader Ben Reeves (50)
Justin Guterding (110) Points leader Ben Reeves (111)
Brian Smyth (76) Ground balls leader Conor Mackie (183)
Peter Welch/JT Giles-Harris (22) Caused turnovers leader Christopher Keating (24)
Brian Smyth (142-275, 51.6%) Face-off leader Conor Mackie (276-436, 63.3%)
Danny Fowler (8.38 GAA, 54.2%) Goaltender Jack Starr (8.28 GAA, 47.9%)
13.74 (3rd) Scoring offense 13.95 (2nd)
7.58 (7th) Assists per game 8.00 (4th)
21.32 (5th) Points per game 21.95 (4th)
8.42 (9th) Scoring defense 8.68 (13th)
48.6% (7th) Man-up offense 46.0% (11th)
69.7% (21st) Man-down defense 65.6% (42nd)
37.3% (2nd) Shot percentage 32.9% (11th)
88.3% (15th) Clearing percentage 86.9% (40th)

Duke is making their first national championship appearance since 2014, when they defeated Notre Dame. Yale is making their first ever national championship appearance in modern history, even though they won a national championship in 1883.

Previewing the attack

Both teams have Tewaaraton candidates in Justin Guterding and Ben Reeves. Both players lead their respective teams in scoring categories, with Reeves having an edge over Guterding in goals and points.

But what about the rest of the unit? Let’s start with the Blue Devils. Joe Robertson has become a very good replacement for Jack Bruckner, number and all. He’s got 46 goals and 12 assists on the season, good for third on the team in points at 58. Yale has Jackson Morrill, who can feed and finish. He’s second on the team with 71 points (40 goals, 31 assists). Ask some of the Yale players about his IQ and they’ll rave that it’s higher than Reeves’ IQ.

“It’s just being put in those different situations with Jackson that have really, I guess, helped me out,” said sophomore attackman Matt Gaudet. “Of course, having him be like a huge feeder for an inside guy has also benefited me in my playing style. Given me more opportunities that I haven’t seen before. Whenever I need a quick little reset on the field, I go up to Jackson, and he really helps me kind of go back to baseline and kind of restart and helps me out when I’m really struggling, I guess, mentally with like a good play or a bad play or what I should have done here. His lacrosse IQ has definitely benefited my IQ as well.”

Reeves told a story from the first week of last fall where he was the one teaching the offense how to set picks and run off picks.

“It was kind of the first thing we realized was his lacrosse IQ is so high,” Reeves said. “He’s an absolutely incredible player and he’s developed so much over the course of the two years, it’s a real honor to play with him. I remember telling Coach Shay that I’m pretty sure he’s the best player on the team right now, and he makes everything happen for us. He’s the quarterback of the offense, basically.”

As for the third attackman, Gaudet is a big-time finisher, while Joey Manown hasn’t done as much as Gaudet. He only has 13 goals and 10 assists, and teams have put a short stick on him as they decide to double pole Duke’s midfield.

Advantage: Yale

Previewing the offensive midfield

Both teams have depth at midfield, which has been a reason for why both squads are the last two standing. On the first unit, Duke has used Brad Smith, Peter Conley, and freshman Nakeie Montgomery. Yale counters with Joey Sessa, John Daniggelis, and Jack Tigh.

Smith is Duke’s best midfielder with 28 goals and 35 assists and has gotten poled. Conley has also gotten a pole as well in recent games. So that leaves Montgomery with a short stick, and he’s taken advantage of it since the NCAA Tournament began. The freshman has 14 goals on the season, eight of them have come in the past three games, including a first half hat-trick against Maryland. He’s not a feeder with only four assists, so he’s going to rely on guys like Smith and Conley and Guterding for those passes. Could we see Yale double pole Smith and Montgomery instead of Conley?

His recent success has come from the team clicking as a whole, and the older guys starting to believe in him.

“It’s kind of like this coming of age thing when your senior captain, Justin, starts to believe in you, and Brad Smith, and Peter Conley and the other seniors,” Montgomery said. “Even the defensive guys, like Cade Van Raaphorst and JT [Giles-Harris], when all those guys start to believe in you, you start to believe in yourself more and you gain confidence. You kind of start making plays in practice that before you were nervous to make, you were nervous to throw that pass or you were nervous to dodge from that angle, things like that.

“Having those guys start to believe in you and you start to do it in practice like, man, I really can do this, it just makes your game that much easier.”

As for Yale, they counter with Tigh, who leads the midfield with 32 goals, 14 assists, and 46 points. Along with him are Sessa (18 Gs, 9 As) and Daniggelis (15 Gs, 6 As). They don’t do a lot of the scoring, but someone like Daniggelis recently has had some success.

The second midfield for Duke includes Reilly Walsh, Foxborough native Sean Lowrie, and Kevin Quigley. They each had a goal in Saturday’s win over Maryland. Yale counters with Jason Alessi, Lucas Cotler, and Brian Tevlin. Duke’s midfield does a lot more for their offense, and it’s shown.

Advantage: Duke

Previewing the close defense

Both units have stellar young players. For Duke, it’s JT Giles-Harris, a sophomore. Yale counters with freshman stud Chris Fake. Giles-Harris primarily covered Connor Kelly on Saturday, so I would assume he would get Reeves or Morrill. Fake dominated Connor Fields in the first half on Saturday and has another tough assignment today in Guterding.

For Duke’s other defensemen, Cade Van Raaphorst is the team’s 1A/1B with Giles-Harris, while the third defenseman is 5th year transfer Kevin McDonough, who comes over from Penn and knows Yale very well.

Yale counters with Jerry O’Connor and Christopher Keating. O’Connor is a very physical defenseman and took on Tehoka Nanticoke on Saturday. when O’Connor wasn’t in, Yale used Aidan Hynes against Nanticoke. Hynes was supposed to start the season, but missed an early portion of the season due to injury, which brought Fake to the starting lineup.

It’s a very tough matchup, but I think the Bulldogs get the slight edge here.

Advantage: Yale

Previewing the “rope unit” (LSMs and SSDMs)

Starting at LSM for Duke, they use Greg Pelton, a former starting defenseman, and Peter Welch. Yale counters with Robert Mooney and Will Weitzel. Duke has some depth at the position with two seniors with playing experience. Mooney was a Second Team All-Ivy selection, while Weitzel is continuing to improve as an overall player after making some appearances his freshman year. Mooney and Weitzel will be a little more active than Pelton and Welch in today’s game.

Advantage: Duke

Moving on to the short sticks, Duke uses Sean Cerrone, John Prendergast, Terry Lindsay, and Blake Leischow. Yale counters with an All-American in Tyler Warner, as well as Will Renz, and Alessi and Tevlin as two-way middies. Daniggelis has also had to play some defense at times. Maybe having Warner would allow Yale to stop Duke’s potent midfielders, but who would he cover?

Advantage: Yale

Previewing the face-off specialists

Just taking a look at the FOGOs, Duke’s Brian Smyth hasn’t been consistent. He can be either really good, as seen in the Hopkins game against Hunter Moreland, or not so good like he was on Saturday primarily against Justin Shockey. If he starts to struggle, Duke also has Joe Stein. Yale counters with Conor Mackie, who’s had a great season with the Bulldogs. Yale also has some solid wing play to get possession if it’s a ground ball battle.

Advantage: Yale

Previewing the goaltenders

Duke has a redshirt-senior in Danny Fowler. Ever since taking over starting duties four years ago, he’s steadily improved each year. He made 12 saves in the win over Maryland and 11 against Johns Hopkins. He’s got great leadership as the last line of defense for the Blue Devils.

Yale has gone with a freshman in Jack Starr. Shay has mentioned that he’s improved recently because he’s focusing on his fundamentals.

“He’s realized that his fundamentals are critical,” Shay said, “and I think he’s really starting to realize that that’s going to be key to his success. Things that he’s been able to get away with in high school where he’s ultra talented, he realizes it’s going to take a little while before he’s the most talented guy in a match-up with a shooter. He’s been far more reliant on his fundamentals lately, and I think it’s made a huge difference.”

Starr also is trying to make history:

If Starr continues his rising play, he could possibly help Yale cruise to victory. But even though neither goalie has played in a national championship game, Fowler has been to one in his freshman season. He doesn’t remember what happened in Baltimore, but his job has been the same: just stop the ball.

Advantage: Duke


According to Lax Vegas Lines, Yale is a one goal favorite against Duke. The over/under for goals is 24.

Additionally, they have some prop bets for today:

  • The over/under for individual goals is three for Ben Reeves, Justin Guterding, Matt Gaudet, and Joe Robertson. The over/under for individual goals is 2.5 for Jackson Morrill. The over/under for individual goals is 2 for Nakeie Montgomery.
  • On the face-off front, Conor Mackie is a four draw favorite over Brian Smyth. His over/under for win percentage is at 61.5%.
  • For saves, the over/under for stops made by Danny Fowler are at 12 saves. The over/under for stops made by Jack Starr are at 9.5 saves.

I just hope we don’t have a 4-0 run to start the game from one team. Overall, this NCAA Tournament has been bad. Not a ton of games have been good, the best may have been Johns Hopkins beating Georgetown in the First Round. Since the quarterfinals began, there’s only been two lead changes, which was Denver taking a 5-4 lead over Albany in the second quarter of their quarterfinal game, before Albany took the lead back for good after they went on a 4-0 run.

I’m expecting a close game from the start. We won’t get a big run to start the game, like we’ve seen in every game at Gillette Stadium this weekend. Duke is capable of looking like the best team in the country one second, then looking like a team that looks very vulnerable the next. That’s happened the past two games against Hopkins and Maryland, but the Blue Devils rebounded at the right time en route to wins.

Yale is a more consistent team, and has been dominant since losing to Cornell in the Ivy League Championship. It was a learning experience for the Bulldogs.

“We’re going to utilize what we learned and just stick to the details and the little things and hopefully that’s enough to carry us to put us in a good spot to win the game,” Reeves said.

Morrill mentioned that Sunday was their biggest day and the team was going to change how they went about the day off.

“Just understanding that Saturday no longer matters,” Morrill said. “I’m looking forward to it. I think the Ivy League tournament will definitely help us this weekend.”

In the end, I think Yale’s defense does enough to stop Duke and gives the Bulldogs their first modern national championship.

Pick: Yale 12, Duke 9
Most Outstanding Player: Ben Reeves

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