Before former Athletics Director Tom Beckett hired Andy Shay in 2003, the Yale men’s lacrosse team was nowhere near the national spotlight. The Bulldogs had emerged as No. 1 in the country only once before. That was in 1883.
As Yale hopes to make its third consecutive trip to the NCAA finals, Shay continues his 17th crusade with the Elis, which has included 155 program wins, five Ivy league Championships, two USILA Division I Coach of the Year honors and one NCAA championship crown. Just last weekend, the No. 1 Bulldogs defeated No. 2 Penn State, which was ranked first in the nation at the time, with the Elis seeded third. Shay currently fields one of the most talented rosters in recent history, yet the Bulldogs were not always the top dogs.
Well before Shay was hoisting trophies, Yale lacrosse was scraping the bottom of the Ancient Eight barrel. So how did Shay take this rag tag program from the bottom of the Ivy League to number one in the nation? The answer: attitude.
From the moment Shay stepped foot on campus, the team felt his presence. “After only brief meetings, it is clear that he brings a style of intensity and intelligence to the game,” goalie Roy Skeen ’04 told the News back in 2003. “It is refreshing and infectious.”
From the start of the 2004 season — in which the Bulldogs finished Ivy play with a measly 1–5 record — Shay emphasized hard work and intensity. Unbeknownst to most, Shay and his staff were slowly changing the culture at Yale, which ultimately turned Yale men’s lacrosse into the powerhouse that it is today.
But that change didn’t happen overnight.
Shay led the Bulldogs to their first winning conference record under his reign in 2010, but the Blue and White did not receive an NCAA tournament bid until 2012. Twenty years had passed since the Elis had demonstrated their ability to compete on the national stage under former head coach Mike Waldvogel. In fact, the only success that the Bulldogs ever had in the NCAA tournament prior to Shay’s arrival came under Waldvogel. Most notably, Yale made it to the Final Four in 1990. Waldvogel left the program suddenly in January of 2003, after the Yale Athletic Department investigated possible rules violations under his leadership.
Shay took over the program after bringing his UMass Minutemen to NCAA tournament quarterfinal berths in both 2002 and 2003 as an assistant coach. Since then, Shay has continually emphasized extreme dedication and humility, which have become the core of Yale’s lacrosse program. In interviews with the News, players and coaches in the industry attributed the Bulldogs’ success to that mentality.
“One thing about coach Shay is that when he first came in, the intent was not to become a national contender, but he wanted to change the culture … from there it was about laying that foundation,” said Jason Alessi ’18, a member of the 2018 national championship squad. “Each year he got better and better and instilled that belief that we won’t be the most talented, but we’ll be the hardest working, the most gritty, chasing down every ball. The goal eventually changed from winning one game to two games, to then winning an Ivy championship. Eventually it became competing on a national scale, and that came from all those years prior where he laid that foundation.”
This sentiment was echoed by players well before Yale was chasing crowns. Shay laid the groundwork for success throughout his tenure, slowly building up the culture that he had in mind for his team.
That mentality isn’t simply one Shay instills in his players alone, but rather is one he also goes to great lengths to uphold himself. Back in 2009, before Yale was even in contention for an Ancient Eight crown, Shay showed up to a 7 a.m. lift the morning following his spinal surgery, Gregory Mahony ’12 recalled.
“In the 2009–10 season we weren’t that good, but every practice was more intense than any game,” Mahony said. “We take recruits to a practice and show them we’re gonna beat you up. Can’t take any practices, any days or any plays off, neither the players nor the coach. And that builds up that winning mentality.”
Back in 2010, when Bulldogs clinched the Ivy league title for the first time under Shay, the Blue and White boasted just one incoming top 100 recruit. In the most recent class with 12 total first years, seven Elis made that list.
Despite the lack of top talent in the beginning, Shay slowly laid the bricks and built a culture of success until Yale grew into its current status as a top program in the nation.
“Shay knew he wouldn’t have the most talent, but he and the other coaches emphasized hard work and hustle,” said Ryan McQuaide ’18, a member of the 2018 national championship squad. “Players give everything they have at all times. … Coach Shay and all those alumni and upperclassmen had laid down that foundation of an extremely strong culture regardless of your position of playing time over the years before my arrival in 2014. … There was an idea that everyone had a contribution to make and no man was more important over the others. We had this slogan, ONE: Only Need Everybody.”
Although Yale eventually found superstars in players like 2018 Tewaaraton Award winner Ben Reeves ’18, faceoff specialist TD Ierlan ’20, attackman Jackson Morrill ’20 and defenseman Chris Fake ’21, Shay still stresses the importance of the unit. The head coach does not like to rely on talent plays and emphasizes fundamentals to give his team an edge, attackman/midfielder Brady McDermott ’22 said.
In Yale’s most recent game versus Penn State, nine different players found the back of the net, and top end goal scoring is currently shared by five teammates, further exemplifying the results of Shay’s efforts.
Shay also extends his influence beyond the lacrosse field.
“He’s very inviting and always open to talk about anything,” McQuaide said. “He’s one of the most humble, unbelievable guys I’ve ever met, but he’s more than deserving of getting credit for what he’s done: helping us to grow not only as lacrosse players but as men too.”
Through the ups and the downs, the wins and the losses, the number one rankings and exclusion from polls altogether, Shay has been there, pacing along the sidelines. Although a few of his hairs have grayed since that first season over a decade ago, his commitment to making Yale the hardest working team in college lacrosse has remained constant.
Other coaches recognize the reasons for Shay’s success, as well.
“Coach Shay has built his program from the ground up over many years,” UPenn head coach Mike Murphy said. “It seems to be built on toughness, good athletes and simple fundamentals executed with great effort.”
No. 6 Virginia head coach Lars Tiffany added to the praise, telling the News that Shay is an “innovative thinker” in the industry and that he puts his team in a fantastic position to win because “his men have a powerful belief in their systems.”
“I don’t like to take any credit,” Shay told the News. “I think this is the confluence of a phenomenal institution that attracts phenomenal people. … To be perfectly honest, the best we’ve had has a lot to do with the fact that our admissions office kind of demands that we have high character individuals. Not just really smart kids, but we have to peel back the layers and find out more about their character than their grades and SATs. Those strictures have made us better in finding those types of kids. The challenge itself has aided in us finding better candidates than we would if we were left to our own devices.”
Shay’s reputation precedes him, but all of that credit is well-deserved, Alessi, McQuaide and several other alumni and current players emphasized — since taking over the Yale men’s lacrosse program in 2003, he has exceeded all expectations and done more than anyone could have asked.
EXCLUSIVE PRESALE OFFER: PLL OPENING WEEKEND Gillette Stadium will host the Premier Lacrosse League's first three games of the league's second season at 7:00 PM on May 29 and at 4:00 PM and 6:45 PM on May 30.
Gillette Stadium is giving you the opportunity to purchase tickets before they go on sale to the general public. This exclusive presale offer begins Monday, February 24 and ends Tuesday, February 25 at 11:00 PM. Fans will receive VIP parking and stadium gate entry.
Tickets will go on sale to the general public on Wednesday, February 26.
FUTURE NCAA LACROSSE CHAMPIONSHIPS
Gillette Stadium has submitted a proposal to host all six NCAA men’s and women’s lacrosse championships in a combined format, bringing together the national lacrosse community for a landmark weekend event in the years 2023, 2024, 2025 and 2026.
Gillette Stadium has hosted five previous men’s championships and the 2017 Division I women’s championship establishing four attendance records and attracting fans from around the United States.
Decisions for 2023, 2024, 2025 and 2026 are expected to be announced by the NCAA in October.
DRAFT RESULTS Last week, the PLL announced the results of the expansion draft. In this draft, Andy Copelan, coach of the PLL's newest team Waterdogs LC, selected the team's inaugural eighteen players from the league's unprotected player list.
As steam formed inside a rusty oil tank, Alfie Jacques crafted wooden lacrosse sticks at a barn down a dirt driveway on the Onondaga Nation reservation a few miles south of Syracuse University.
The tank in question measures a few feet wide and about 8 feet long. Its temperature was set so high that steam shot out of the 1,000-liter drum filled with water. Jacques, 69, stuck a piece of wood into the tank, pulled it out and bent it.
“This boil starts steaming like hell,” he said. “The wood doesn’t just bend. You have to muscle it.”
A few dozen logs sat under a tarp on the grass behind Jacques. About 15 yards away is his barn, home to what he believes is the best stickmaking in the world. The air smelled of wood. There is no plastic, no music, no TVs, no signs of assembly-line production. There’s just Jacques, his wood, his equipment and his devotion to a technique — a way of life — that has lasted nearly six decades. It has spanned the United States and Canada, and created more than 100,000 one-piece wooden lacrosse sticks, each made by hand.
Kevin Camelo | Digital Design Editor
Seven days a week, 40-something weeks a year, Jacques wakes up at his Fayetteville home and drives his red van to a spot on the Onondaga Nation reservation that doesn’t show up on Google Maps. He opens up shop, crafts some sticks and locks up in the evening. It’s a no-frills operation that begins with selecting the best shagbark hickory trees and ends by fusing a message onto the stick, along with a trademark stamp. The inscription is often custom, especially if the stick serves as an award or gift. A stick he recently made reads: “Leader, friend.”
“This is the Creator’s Game,” he said. “It’s a lot more than people think. People think of the Native American as a savage, godless creature that’s out to kill people. They say we’re poor, uneducated, on a reservation, totally controlled by the white people. That’s how they like their Indian. We’re always fighting against that kind of prejudice. So we embrace one another and the game of lacrosse.”
Because of an extensive drying process, each stick takes 10 months to make and sells for about $350. Yet he maintains a drive for his craft because for Native Americans, lacrosse is sacred. Men are put to rest in a casket with a lacrosse stick.
Many of his sticks are made for people living on the Onondaga Nation reservation, where lacrosse is used to heal and lift the spirits of community members.
“Lacrosse is who we are as a people,” Jacques said. “And this is the mecca of lacrosse. People come from all over to watch the old Indian guy make lacrosse sticks.”
His shoulders, fingers, wrists and back hurt after he logs six- to 10-hour days. Jacques said he makes about 200 sticks per year now, down from about 11,000 in 1972. In the 1960s and 1970s, he made sticks for many Syracuse, Cornell, Siena and Cortland men’s lacrosse players. He learns more about the stick creation process every time, and often tells people who buy his sticks that they’re “the best stick I’ve ever made.”
“Each stick is a work of art,” said Jacques’ sister, Freid. “He never hurried up so he could make more and make a lot of them, so he could make more money. That’s never the purpose. It’s to make an excellent stick.”
Since many traditional stickmakers have died or retired, Jacques is running one of the last old-school stick-production joints in the country. He works in a shed with a few lights, alongside cats named Obama and Michelle, on a wooden bench he built with his father in 1969. His father, Louis, introduced lacrosse to him, setting him on a path to become a star at nearby LaFayette High School.
In the decades since, when traveling to games and conventions, he’s had a front-row seat to the rise in the game, which he correlates with the rise in plastic heads. He maintains an appreciation for the innovations that drove a stark decline in demand for wooden sticks. He has no hard feelings, because he said it’s what brought lacrosse across the country and world.
“If we had relied on Indians making wooden sticks,” Jacques said, “the game wouldn’t have grown as big, as fast.”
The Syracuse men’s lacrosse team has not visited Jacques’ workshop, he said, but visiting teams sometimes do on their trips to play the Orange. Notre Dame and Virginia have watched him make sticks. Last year, UVA head coach Lars Tiffany looked back to his time growing up on a ranch in LaFayette — near Onondaga Nation — by busing his entire team to Jacques’ barn. Players packed into a back room.
“The Onondaga Reservation reminds us all of the beauty of this game,” Tiffany said. “Alfie’s stick-making is at the core of lacrosse.”
Alexandra Moreo | Senior Staff Photographer
The foundation for the best-quality lacrosse stick begins about a year before it’s even used in a game. Tree selection is not paramount — Jacques said all steps are integral — but finding the right tree is make-or-break. The living nature of the tree is believed to transfer into the lacrosse stick and the person using the stick. A bad tree makes it impossible to construct a stick, said Jacques, who surveys forests in the LaFayette, Cortland, Cazenovia, Ithaca and Oswego areas.
There can be no knots or limbs for the first 3 meters. The tree must be at least 100 years old. Each log costs about $50. Sometimes, he’ll pick five hickory trees out of 200. He cuts them down himself, and he brings seeds and plants new trees.
Then Jacques splits the tree into eighths using a wooden mallet, axes and wooden wedges. He uses a knife — made in 1832 and passed down to him by his father — to remove bark and to carve the stick to its final form. He straightens the handle, balances the piece and puts final trims on.
There is no playbook or measuring tools, just his own estimation that comes from 57 years of experience. The drying process alone is about six months. He completes each stick by sanding it, burning his logo, dating and stamping.
As a large green belt-sander hummed last week, Jacques sat on an old wooden bench and carved a stick. He paid special attention to how the knife traveled. He explained that you don’t just pull the knife along the wood. A defining characteristic of a good stick lies in the handle. Don’t minimize the handle.
“It’s therapeutic,” Jacques said. “You have a wood stove on, pot of coffee, just make chips all day. When you’re done, the floors are covered with chips. It’s a relaxing thing to do. Everything you do in this work has purpose to the end product. There’s no gravy. You don’t just cut for cutting sake. You cut with purpose. You saw with purpose, carve with purpose, drill holes with purpose.”
Alexandra Moreo | Senior Staff Photographer
He’s crafted wooden sticks for nearly six decades, factoring in his introduction to stick-making. Back in 1960, his family couldn’t afford a stick, which went for $5, so he and his father cut down a hickory tree in the backyard and made a stick without much background knowledge.
Since then, a lot has changed. The game of lacrosse has blossomed. Many fellow stickmakers have died. Lacrosse fans have come from far beyond the edges of Onondaga Nation for his sticks. As the internet boomed, he never felt the urge to have social media or advertise on a website. There may even be a few thousand more sticks in his future, though he looks forward to scaling back in retirement.
His sticks, at that workshop at the bottom of the hill, have remained a constant through it all.
“This is what I live for,” he said. “This is what I can do all of the time, every day. This is my life.”