Men's Lacrosse

CNY product Shay shapes Yale’s formiddable, aggressive defense

Bob Shillinglaw knew his team was in trouble. Down six goals, Shillinglaw’s Delaware Blue Hens were 13 minutes away from elimination in the 1999 NCAA tournament. He turned to assistant coach Andy Shay.

“We’ve got to do something,” Shillinglaw said.

Shay ‘s defense then pressured the ball furiously, causing turnovers that turned defense into offense. Delaware scored seven unanswered goals against the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and won 12-11 in overtime.

Now the head coach of Yale, Shay is respected as one of the country’s top defensive minds. Shay’s defense and the mentality that drives it has carried them to the Elite Eight. There, the Bulldogs will face Syracuse on Saturday at 3 p.m. at the University of Maryland’s Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium.

“Coach Shay’s defensive success comes from his ability to teach the intangibles,” Yale defender Peter Johnson said in an email. “He ingrains into us this blue collar, detail-oriented mindset that translates into being a mentally tough team.”

It’s a mindset Shay took from his formative years in Central New York. He was a four-year starting defender at LeMoyne College and two-year captain. He began his coaching career at Morrisville State in Morrisville, N.Y., and then moved on to the University of Delaware and the University of Massachusetts.

In 2001, his Massachusetts team led Division I in man-down defense, allowing opponents only 11 goals in 80 chances. In 2002 and 2003, Massachusetts allowed fewer than 10 goals per game and ranked third in the nation in scoring margin.

His defenses were continually top-notch. This year, Yale ranks seventh in goals-against per game with eight and cause 8.69 turnovers a game, good for 14th in the country.

“What makes him a great coach is his ability to teach little tips and fundamentals that help us improve individually,” Johnson said, explaining how Shay taught the Yale defenders the “Quick Cradle,” a technique that allows them to pick up ground balls under heavy pressure.

Current Massachusetts head coach Greg Cannella specified Shay’s ability to break away from the norm as the brilliance of his defenses in man-down situations.

“He would scheme up things for certain teams, against certain people,” Cannella said. “He was a guy who never hedged on what he was doing.”

At Delaware, Shay helped turn a rebuilding program into a 14-3 team, one that narrowly missed the NCAA tournament in 1998. After the dramatic overtime win against UMBC, the Blue Hens lost to Virginia, the eventual 1999 national champion.

“He really liked creating defenses that applied pressure, created turnovers, and created transition,” Shillinglaw said.

Both coaches reiterated Shay’s ability to connect with current players and potential recruits.

Johnson agrees. The Yale defender first met Shay at the Delaware Battle of The Hotbeds camp. Johnson needed stitches on his face, and as one of the camp’s directors, Shay took him to the hospital.

“We sat in the waiting room while watching (‘To Catch a Predator’). I was initially a bit intimidated by him, as he is a more reserved guy,” Johnson said. “He didn’t recruit me that year, so I was disappointed at first. But after committing to do a (post-graduate) year I finally garnered his approval.”

Johnson, now a senior defender, was thrown into the defensive mix immediately. He started as a freshman alongside two others, Mike McCormack and Phil Gross. It was a “bold move” then, as Johnson put it then, but now all three are staples of one of the nation’s best defenses.

In the team’s regular-season finale against Harvard, Yale went up a goal with 5:48 remaining and needed the defense to make one last stand. The Bulldogs did, escaping with a 9-8 victory to clinch a berth in the Ivy League tournament and earn a share of the regular-season Ivy League championship.

Said Johnson: “It was a great turning point for this program and was one of the best stands I think we’ve made.”

And if Yale is to upset No. 1-seed Syracuse on Saturday, it will need at least an equally poised performance.

Said Shillinglaw: “I think he certainly has a variety of defensive styles. He analyzes what the opponent’s bringing and will adapt to what the strength of what the opponent is.”

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