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