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´╗┐The Best For Last
A third straight football victory over Harvard made up for thwarted Ivy title hopes, but a pack of women runners made the biggest mark on the fall sports season.

They began Yale as roommates, sharing a first-floor double in Farnam Hall in the fall of 1997. Pete Mazza was excited to be rooming with fellow football player Eric Johnson, but when he said as much to freshman Matt Proto, an offensive lineman, during workouts on campus the previous summer, Proto said, “That guy’s a jerk. I met him during spring practice. He wouldn’t talk to anybody.” But Mazza soon found out that Johnson is “one of the nicest guys on campus.” Off the field, the two became best friends and four-year roommates. On it, they were, in the words of head coach Jack Siedlecki, “the captain and big-play offensive player in this senior class that has put Yale back on the football map.”

Mazza and Johnson were two of 35 freshmen who would suit up for the woebegone football team that fall, Siedlecki’s first recruiting class. “My wife referred to me as an evangelist when I first started recruiting here,” said Siedlecki. Indeed, he hung a sign in the locker room that read, “Belief Without Evidence.” Though Siedlecki had enjoyed much success as head coach at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Amherst College, both in Division III, he was an unproven commodity in Div. I-AA. And all available evidence pointed towards impending hardship: Yale was coming off five straight losing Ivy seasons.

Mazza and Johnson, like many of their freshman teammates, had been used to leading winning teams. Mazza played on four state championship teams in his four years at Cheshire High (Conn.), and he captained the Rams his senior year. Johnson also captained his football squad his senior year at Needham High (Mass.), along with the basketball and volleyball teams. But during their first Yale campaign, the roommates had to play behind upperclassmen who had become accustomed to losing, and they continued to do so, going 1–9 in 1997.

Three years later, Johnson, the star receiver and punter, and Mazza, the team captain and standout linebacker, are once again winners. And they leave the Yale football program with the legacy of winning, and the accompanying expectations.

To be sure, the Bulldogs did not win the Ivy championship this year. But in the last three seasons, they have placed second, first, and third in the league, with a combined record of 15–6 in league games and 22–8 overall. This season began on a winning note, with the program’s 800th victory coming in a 42–6 trouncing of Dayton. And it ended with an even sweeter win, Yale’s third straight against Harvard, 34–24. (Yale hadn’t beaten the Cantabs three times in a row since 1976–78.)

The remarkable turnaround by the football team was equaled, if not surpassed, by the women’s cross country team. After finishing a disappointing seventh at the Heptagonal Games cross-country championships last year, Yale’s female harriers vowed at preseason training to set higher goals. “We didn’t talk about doing well in Heps and Regionals,” said Kate O’Neill ’03. “We decided to have a goal of winning Heps, qualifying at Regionals, and doing well at Nationals.”

That is just what the Bulldogs did. First, they captured the Heptagonal title, the biggest one-year team turnaround in the history of the race. They then went on to place second at the District 1 Qualifiers two weeks later—good enough to go to Nationals for the first time in ten years.

The Bulldogs had achieved their remarkable success—and rapid turnaround—by sticking together, running in a pack for the first mile of each race. “We’re similar in speed, tactics, and our approach to the race,” O’Neill said. “It worked really well for the group that we have.” After splitting up in races, the runners yelled out “Yale” throughout the race, letting each other know they were within earshot. “It helps to know that your teammates are there,” said Kate O’Neill’s twin sister Laura. “Hardly any other team has so many runners up front, so it makes other teams nervous.”

The runners were not about to abandon the formula during Nationals. Though the course was crammed with runners throughout—an average of three women crossed the finish line every second—the Bulldogs held true to form. Kate and Laura finished 31st and 32nd, respectively, the entire team finished within a minute of each other, and the team took home seventh place. All of the scoring Yale runners were All-Ivy this season, and the twins became All-Americans. The Bulldogs will again be a formidable squad next year, as five of their top seven runners return, and the team’s success has helped with recruiting. “We already have a lot of people applying early who are very talented,” Kate O’Neill said.

After two years of just barely missing qualifying for the NCAAs, the men’s soccer team had broken through last year, earning a top 25 ranking and beating their first NCAA opponent before losing to Connecticut in the Sweet 16. This year’s team had lost two of the top goal scorers in Yale history in Jac Gould ’00 and Phil Harris ’00, but returned two first-team All-Ivy players in Jay Alberts ’03 and Brian Lavin ’02. Yale started strong by dismantling Cornell, 3–0, but the offense seemed to disappear against Dartmouth in Hanover less than a week later. “Dartmouth was a difficult team to play,” said captain and goalkeeper Danny Moss ’01. “They are very direct and don’t play possession ball.” The Bulldogs eventually keeled in double overtime, 1–0, as a long-range shot was deflected into the far corner of the Yale net in the final minutes. As went the game, so went the season. Yale lost two more Ivy games by a single goal, eliminating any chances for a repeat selection to the NCAAs.

The women’s soccer team, returning their top three scorers from a squad that reached the ECAC tournament last year, came through in October with a 1–0 upset victory over No. 18 Connecticut, the team’s first win over the Huskies ever. But a 3–2 overtime loss to Brown to end the season left Yale with a 3–4 Ivy record and out of postseason play. The women’s volleyball team won the Rider and Quinnipiac tournaments in the midst of a nine-game September winning streak, but the women managed only a 4–3 Ivy record, and were knocked out of the league tournament by Princeton in the semifinals. With new coach Dan Ireland, previously a Georgetown assistant, at the helm, the men’s cross country team had an up-and-down season. The runners, led by senior captain Rob Doyle, beat Harvard but finished eighth at Heptagonals. Women’s field hockey was also guided by a new coach, former assistant Ainslee Lamb, who saw the team lose its first 11 games before bouncing back at the end of the season. The Bulldogs beat Columbia and Penn en route to winning three of their last seven.

The football team, coming off an Ivy championship season, entered the year with high expectations. The Bulldogs gained national prominence in their season opener on September 16 by becoming the first collegiate football team to win 800 games. (The Bulldogs now lead Michigan, 806 to 805.) They also played a nearly flawless game in defeating the University of Dayton, 42–6, and served notice that despite losing record-setting quarterback Joe Walland ’00 to graduation, they would again be a force in the Ivy League. Junior Peter Lee, the new signal caller, hardly missed a beat, completing 19 of 23 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Rashad Bartholomew ’01 ran for 201 yards, the third-highest single-game total in Yale history.

The national media made much of the milestone victory—ABC Sports even broadcast the last minute of the rout. But for the most part, the Yale players shrugged off the victory and focused on the upcoming Ivy season. And for good reason: In the 1999 season opener, Brown beat Yale 25–24 on a fluke two-point conversion with 40 seconds left. The loss marred what was an otherwise perfect season.

This year’s Bulldogs were determined to prevent a repeat against Cornell, but the Big Red seemed to have stolen the game with a fourth-quarter comeback to take a 24–23 lead with just over two minutes left. Still, a resilient Lee led the offense on a six-play, 63-yard drive to set up a potential game-winning 32-yard field goal by Mike Murawczyk ’01, who had come into the game having converted 24 straight kicks from within 40 yards. This one sailed wide left, though, and again the Bulldogs started the Ivy season 0–1.

Previous Yale teams might have folded, hoping for victory but not expecting it. But Mazza, Johnson, and their classmates reeled off five straight wins, beginning with three fourth-quarter comebacks. The Bulldogs stifled the potent Penn passing attack in a 27–24 win and subsequently drubbed Columbia the next week 41–0, a game in which the Bulldog secondary gained more yards on interception returns (115) than the Lions’ passing offense accrued (100). After that fourth week of league play, the Bulldogs were in a four-way tie atop the league standings and in control of their destiny. With two games remaining before the Harvard game, both against sub-.500 teams, the league title seemed well within reach.

But suddenly, the offense stalled. Against Brown, the previously mistake-free Lee threw four costly interceptions, and an injured Bartholomew could only muster 66 yards on the ground. The Bears, celebrating the 75th anniversary of Brown Field before a raucous crowd, spoiled things for Yale for the second straight year, winning 28–14.

That disappointment paled before the heartbreak of the following week’s 19–14 home loss to Princeton. In the second half the Bulldogs failed to score, and the Tigers scored 16 to win.

The mood in the post-game press conference was one of abject sorrow. Siedlecki, flanked by senior leaders Mazza, Johnson, and Bartholomew, took the blame for the loss, citing his passive play calling on offense. Mazza, in turn, placed the burden of the defeat on his shoulders, for failing to complete a tackle on a broken running play by Princeton fullback Marty Cheatham ’01 that became a 44-yard gain and set up the winning score. “I was right there,” Mazza said of the play. “I could have had him. But I stopped running. And I won’t know why until the day I die.”

That same day, Harvard lost its second league game on a missed field goal in the closing seconds, falling to Penn, 36–35. Both the Crimson and the Bulldogs had been eliminated from league contention with one week remaining in painful fashion; as Siedlecki said after the Princeton game, the first team to overcome its depression would win.

For the Bulldogs’ Class of 2001, the loss was a tough one, particularly because it came in their last home game. But Bartholomew sensed a difference in the younger players. “I was worried after the Princeton game,” he said. “We didn’t seem to have a depression. Some of the younger guys were saying, ‘Who cares, it’s not our last game at the Bowl.’”

Mazza could feel that something different was needed before the game against Harvard. He is intense when leading the defense on the field, and when he is on the sidelines, he kneels alone, watching the game just as intensely. But, against his nature, he loosened things up. “My style is usually a little more high-strung, but this week, I was thinking it might be better if we took off the pressure,” he said after The Game. “We had a lot of fun yesterday in practice. I was telling the guys before the game, let’s stay loose out there and keep having fun.”

That proved to be the difference in a matchup between two teams that were so similar in so many ways. Besides their mutual disappointment, the two teams were 1–2 in rushing offense and rushing defense, with Harvard leading in both categories. They finished the season adjacent in Ivy rankings in scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense, and passing efficiency. Going into The Game, Harvard had outscored opponents by 82 points; Yale by 83.

But in two areas, the teams were polar opposites. The Bulldogs were second in Div. I-AA in turnovers lost (9) and turnover margin (+1.8), while the Crimson had the fifth-worst turnover margin (-1.5) and lost the seventh-most turnovers (36). And in the pass-happy Ivy League, which placed four quarterbacks in the top ten in total offense, Yale was the only team to rank in the top 80 in Div. I-AA in pass defense.

The Yale defense was the difference in the victory over Harvard. “They just smelled blood,” Mazza said proudly of his corps, which picked up seven turnovers and held Harvard quarterback Neil Rose ’02 to six yards per pass attempt—two below his season average. “Yale deserved to win today. In the end, they made fewer mistakes than we did,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “The difference in the last two games was turnovers.” The Crimson turned the ball over 12 times against Penn and Yale—three more times than the Bulldogs turned the ball over all season.

The Yale seniors came up big in this, their last of many victories. Bartholomew gained 119 yards and the all-time Yale rushing record previously held by Dick Jauron ’73. Murawczyk put aside his struggles during the season to nail two field goals and four extra points, in the process breaking Yale’s all-time scoring record. Safety Than Merrill, perhaps the team’s top pro prospect, recorded 12 tackles and caused three Crimson turnovers. Cornerback Todd Tomich helped shut down the vaunted Crimson passing attack and finished his Yale career with the school records for interceptions (16) and punt-return yardage (788). Mazza made nine tackles to add to his team-leading total of 107, the second season he led the team. And Johnson caught 13 passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns, adding to his season and career records for receptions, receiving yards, and touchdown catches.

“These record-breaking seniors will be remembered for years to come for what they have done for Yale football,” Siedlecki said. “They deserved to win their final game and won it the way they have won so many others, by battling right to the end and believing in each other right to the end.”

Though the seniors are gone, Yale won’t exactly be left empty-handed next year. Lee will be back to run the offense once again, but next season his primary targets will be juniors Keith Reams and Billy Brown, both of whom showed promise in breaking big plays—they each averaged about 15 yards per catch this year. Also returning for the offense is former All-Ivy fullback Jim Keppel ’02, who was third on the team in receptions this year and provides a big target for Lee coming out of the backfield. Even the defensive secondary, which is losing first-team All-Ivy performers Merrill and Tomich, could match this year’s success. Strong safety Ryan LoProto ’02, who led the team in interceptions, including two he brought back for touchdowns against Columbia, will anchor the defensive backfield with Barton Simmons ’04. Simmons, in limited playing time, finished fourth in the league in passes defended and was the first Ivy freshman ever to win league defensive player of the week honors for his efforts against Dartmouth. But perhaps the most important Bulldog to return is Siedlecki, who signed a long-term contract in July and reports that his family is very happy in New Haven.

After it was over, in a post-game press conference worlds apart from the previous week’s, Mazza paid tribute to his teammate, roommate, and best friend Johnson. “That guy, he’s my roommate, and he’s one of the best players ever to play in … in I don’t know what category,” Mazza said emotionally. “I would never bet against that guy on the football field.”

Mazza and Johnson won’t be back, but their “expect to win” attitude will. So no one should be betting against the Bulldogs on the football field, either. Siedlecki might have to change the team’s motto to the more prosaic “Belief with Evidence.”  the end

 
     
   
 
 
 
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