COSTA MESA, Calif. — As the opening faceoff ensued, senior midfielder Christian Ford crashed down the wing toward Michigan’s defensive zone.
Ford was attempting to stop the fast break of Yale’s faceoff midfielder TD Ierlan, who easily popped the ball forward to himself, scooped up the ground ball and began streaking toward the net.
While Ford and the Wolverines’ defensive unit contained Ierlan on the opening draw, the consistency of the Bulldogs’ senior — who ranks third in the nation in faceoff win percentage (71.1 percent) and second in ground balls — created problems for the Michigan men’s lacrosse team (3-3) all night on Saturday.
Despite periods of high-powered offense led by fifth-year senior midfielder Rocco Sutherland and sophomore attackman Bryce Clay, who each notched three goals, the Wolverines were unable to overcome a dominant faceoff performance (27-of-30) by No. 5 Yale (3-1), as they fell to the Bulldogs, 17-11.
“You don’t (prepare for someone like TD),” Michigan coach Kevin Conry said. “We threw the kitchen sink at him. The only way to prepare for him is to wait for (his) graduation.”
Winning the first five faceoffs of the game, Ierlan’s dominance at the X paid dividends for Yale early on.
Two minutes into the first quarter, Sutherland rocketed a time-and-room shot past goaltender Jack Starr on an extra-man opportunity. But the Wolverines’ 1-0 edge — the only lead they held all night — was short-lived.
The Bulldogs quickly piled on six unanswered goals, three coming from attackman Matt Gaudet, who tallied six total goals on the night.
Moving the ball frenetically on offense and pushing out aggressively on defense, Yale had Michigan on its heels.
But the Wolverines were able to regain their balance for a moment. In the final minutes of the first quarter, Sutherland and junior midfielder Steven Schneider added a pair of goals to cut the deficit to three, 6-3.
Despite its struggle to get possession off faceoffs, Michigan found other ways to get its offense the ball. With gritty ground ball play from players like sophomore defensemen Drake Schaffner, who scooped up five ground balls, its defense was successful on 18-of-20 of its clears.
“In the first five minutes, our guys were seeing stars,” Conry said. “But once that initial onslaught happened, we were able to settle in and played much more sound, fundamental defense. … And that allowed our offense to get a couple reps.”
Taking long, hard dodges at the Bulldogs’ defenders, the Wolverines opened up their offense.
Less than five minutes into the second quarter, freshman attackman Josh Zawada wrapped around the net and gracefully fired an underhand shot past Starr to cut Yale’s lead to one, 6-5.
Minutes later, Zawada found Sutherland wide open on the left side of the field, who quickly knotted the game at six. Sutherland reared his head back toward the sky as Michigan’s bench buzzed with energy.
“As a leader on this team, I have to step up when my number is called,” Sutherland said. “Today I just had the hot hand going earlier, so I took advantage of that.”
But the Wolverines’ momentum could not be sustained.
In the third quarter, Yale outscored Michigan 4-1. With a unit that led the Bulldogs to a runner-up finish in the NCAA Tournament championship game last May and returned their three top point-scorers, Yale’s offense produced whenever Ierlan — who won every faceoff he took in the second half — got it the ball.
In the final quarter, a trio of goals from Clay, freshman midfielder Jake Bonomi and junior midfielder Alex Buckanavage cut Yale’s lead to two, 13-11.
But once again, Michigan was only able to ride its wave of productivity for so long, as the Bulldogs charged back with four goals in the quarter’s latter half to secure their victory.
At the end of the night, the Wolverines simply didn’t have an answer to Ierlan.
Enlisting a combination of four different players, Michigan failed to beat the Inside Lacrosse Preseason All-American and get the offensive possessions it needed. Instead, the Wolverines committed six faceoff violations on the night, which produced two costly penalties for the team.
Nevertheless, as a young and developing program, Michigan competed fiercely against a team poised to return to Championship Weekend this season.
“It was a big boy game and we learned a lot,” Conry said. “We are a much better team right now than we were two-and-a-half hours ago.”
And when Conry looks at Yale, he sees things he hopes to see in his own program someday.
“We look at Yale and see what they’ve built,” Conry said. “They’ve built a culture of toughness. They assert their will. … I think we are building that same culture but it’s gonna take some time.”