Reach­ing semis ‘a lit­tle sur­real’

Stamford Advocate (Sunday) - - Sports - JEFF JA­COBS

HEMP­STEAD, N.Y. — The last time John Danigge­lis ran on to Hof­s­tra’s Shuart Sta­dium field as a lacrosse player it was sunny and ex­tremely hot. The date was May 31, 2014.

A star for Smith­town East High on Long Is­land, Danigge­lis would walk off full of sweat, full of de­jec­tion.

“It was the Long Is­land cham­pi­onship and we lost 13-12,” Yale’s ju­nior mid­fielder said Satur­day. “We had a chance to tie and the shot hit the out­side of the net. They went on to win the state cham­pi­onship.”

“They” is Mas­s­ape­qua, and as Danigge­lis looked around the locker room Satur­day be­fore the NCAA quar­ter­fi­nal against Loy­ola (Md.), he was re­minded this by his Yale team­mate and Mas­s­ape­qua prod­uct Nick Yevoli.

“He was bust­ing my chops a lit­tle be­fore the game, say­ing, ‘Are you fi­nally go­ing to

get a win on this field?’ ” Danigge­lis said.

It was nei­ther hot nor sunny Satur­day. Yet in a chilly, some­times driv­ing rain, Danigge­lis would get his lacrosse win at Shuart Sta­dium and Yale would fi­nally get into the Fi­nal Four for the first time in 28 years.

This was a spe­cial af­ter­noon for the Eli and for the home­boy.

If you scratch his­tory enough at Yale, the 19th cen­tury will sur­face. Sure enough, Yale was a tri-na­tional lacrosse cham­pion in 1883 based on reg­u­lar-sea­son records. Not to go all LAX bib­li­cal, but the USILL be­gat the USILA which be­gat the NCAA and its first tour­na­ment in 1971.

Yale has ad­vanced to the NCAAs six of the past seven years, yet not since 1990 had the Bull­dogs moved on to to the na­tional semi­fi­nals. This year, to the plea­sure of noted lacrosse en­thu­si­ast Bill Belichick, the Fi­nal Four will be at Gil­lette Sta­dium in Foxborough. Yale will have a chance next Satur­day to demon­strate that its 14-6 thump­ing of Al­bany on April 22 was no mis­take.

“It’s a lit­tle sur­real at this point,” coach Andy Shay said.

Se­nior at­tack­man Ben Reeves is sur­real and he’s real. The only three-time Te­waara­ton Award (think LAX Heis­man) fi­nal­ist play­ing in 2018, Reeves scored three goals and set up three more in another bril­liant per­for­mance. He al­ready had the school ca­reer marks for goals and points, and his six points lifted him to 102 and the all-time sin­gle-sea­son record.

Fresh­man Jack Starr was a star in goal. Se­nior Conor Mackie was a star on face­offs, go­ing 12 for 17 on the X. And here was Danigge­lis, who grew up a half-hour away off North­ern State Park­way, ty­ing his ca­reer best with a pair of huge goals.

“As great as Ben is, we know he can’t do it all him­self,” Danigge­lis said. “He needs a sup­port­ing cast. He draws so much at­ten­tion to him­self that it makes our jobs a lot eas­ier. We’re very lucky and thank­ful to have him.”

Eight goals were scored in a fairly wild first pe­riod, and Danigge­lis’ score with 1:50 left gave Yale a lead it did not re­lin­quish. Of course, Reeves had some­thing up his sleeve.

“I just found space off ball,” Danigge­lis said. “Ben, with his great vi­sion, was able to see me on the back side and hit me a through ball. I tried to put it off stick but I think it went five-hole.”

Danigge­lis came from be­hind the net in the third pe­riod to make it 7-4.

“We had a lit­tle bit of two-man game be­hind the cage,” he said. “I saw my shorty went around the net on the top side, which having the abil­ity to play de­fense helps me of­fen­sively. I can see when some­body is out of po­si­tion.

“Know­ing he had to go all around the cage, I caught it, brought it back near side and fin­ished it with a move that Jack­son Mor­rill taught me in prac­tice.”

Danigge­lis was a lacrosse star at Smith­town East, earn­ing All-Amer­i­can recog­ni­tion. He also started at quar­ter­back three years and twice was nom­i­nated for the Boomer Esi­a­son Award. He would count 20 fam­ily mem­bers and friends sit­ting in the rain pulling for him. He was gen­uinely touched.

“My grand­par­ents are get­ting older and they haven’t been able to come up to Yale much,” he said. “They were at the game to­day and it was very spe­cial for me to see them after­ward.”

His sis­ter, Class of ’16, played lacrosse at Yale. Was Nicole here?

“She comes to all my games,” Danigge­lis said. “She’s mak­ing up for it, be­cause I went to a bunch of hers when I was in high school. I was very ex­cited to come back to Long Is­land.”

Lacrosse re­mains a bur­geon­ing sport, and Con­necti­cut re­mains a hot­bed of ta­lent. Nine play­ers — in­clud­ing Darien’s Kevin Lind­ley, an out­stand­ing fresh­man whose dad played base­ball at Yale — dot the Loy­ola ros­ter. Blink twice and an FCIAC game might have bro­ken at Shuart Sta­dium.

The last time Danigge­lis com­peted at Shuart, it wasn’t lacrosse. He threw for 121 yards and ran for 66 more to lead Long Is­land over New York City in the Em­pire Chal­lenge. He was named MVP in front of 9,626 fans. He told Newsday that June night in 2015 that he might try foot­ball at Yale, too. In­ter­ested in in­vest­ment bank­ing, Danigge­lis came to un­der­stand the aca­demic rig­ors of the Ivy League. That was his last foot­ball game.

And now this will be his and his Yale team­mates’ first Fi­nal Four lacrosse game.

“Having al­ready gone to the first round of the NCAA Tour­na­ment twice, last year was es­pe­cially tough,” Danigge­lis said. “We out­played Syra­cuse, but a cou­ple things didn’t go our way. Step­ping onto cam­pus this fall, you had the feel­ing there was some­thing about this team.

“Through­out the year, we’ve grown so close to­gether. There is no grade dis­par­ity. There is 45 of your best friends go­ing to work ev­ery day, prac­tic­ing hard to­gether, laugh­ing to­gether, cry­ing to­gether. That shows up on the field, how close we are.”

On this Satur­day, they would laugh to­gether in the rain.

Ted Keat­ing / Yale Ath­let­ics

Yale’s Matt Gaudet tracks down a loose ball dur­ing Satur­day’s na­tional quar­ter­fi­nal game against Loy­ola (Md.).

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