When he arrived in New Haven, Conn., in 2013, Yale senior Conor Mackie already had shown enough potential as a faceoff specialist that the Bulldogs coaching staff envisioned him as a FOGO of the future.
Not that Mackie was totally on board with that idea. As a product of Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J., where he was the primary faceoff man and a 30-goal scorer as a senior midfielder under legendary former coach Chuck Ruebling, Mackie saw himself in more of a dual role at the Division I level.
That wish was not granted.
But this week, as Yale prepared for its first trip to the NCAA tournament semifinals since 1990 — the third-seeded Bulldogs (15-3) will square off against second-seeded Albany on Saturday at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. — Mackie was quite pleased with the way things have worked out.
Entering this weekend, Mackie, the leading FOGO for the past two years in New Haven, ranked seventh in the nation with a 64.6 winning percentage. He has been on a two-month tear, as the Yale faceoff unit has fed its potent offense and refreshed its rugged defense consistently by maintaining possession control.
“A position change can be hard to accept, and initially [at Yale] becoming a FOGO was hard to accept,” recalled Mackie, who, under Ruebling, began devoting more time to the faceoff craft early on at Delbarton and said he took about 75 percent of the draws as a senior.
“But I had worked as a regular lacrosse player for my whole life, and I thought I’d continue to roll like that [at Yale]. In my first year, I tried to participate in as many field drills as possible,” he added. “I have to credit Coach Shay for recognizing some potential in me and pushing me into this role. I spent two years facing off every day against [former two-year starter] Jon Reese in practice. By my junior year, I’d started to embrace the position fully.”
If the Elis advance to their first-ever NCAA final on Monday, Yale will face the winner of the Maryland-Duke semifinal. Duke, the fourth seed, is pursuing its fourth NCAA title, all under 12th-year coach John Danowski. Top-seeded Maryland is after its second straight title and its sixth appearance in the final under eighth-year coach John Tillman.
Yale has been remarkably balanced throughout 2018 under Shay, its 15th-year head coach — and thanks in large part to Mackie. As an upperclassman, he has honed his technique to complement the impressive strength and size he admits he used to rely on too much as a faceoff specialist.
Led by senior attackman Ben Reeves, a three-time first-team All-American and three-time Tewaaraton finalist who on Thursday was named USILA Player of the Year, the Bulldogs’ offense has thrived.
Defensively, the Bulldogs have been suffocating at times, with All-Americans Chris Fake and Chris Keating down low, All-American short stick Tyler Warner and long pole Robert Mooney patrolling the midfield.
Yale has arguably been the game’s best riding team. Opposing coaches say the Elis boast the best overall combination of size, speed and physicality in Division I.
That is where the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Mackie, a fifth-round MLL draft pick and one of a school-record six picks last month, fits right into Yale’s big picture.
While fans understandably have been fascinated by faceoff stars Trevor Baptiste and TD Ierlan, who staged an epic battle at the X in last week’s riveting 14-12 quarterfinals victory by Ierlan’s Albany team over Denver, Mackie, also an All-American, has plugged along with his own brand of steady dominance.
Yale’s fourth-ranked offense (13.61 GPG) and 11th-ranked defense (8.56 GAA) have fed off of Mackie throughout the season.
“[Mackie] gives you so much confidence on offense, whether you need some goals to come back to win a game, or on defense if we’re leading in the second half,” said Mooney, also key part of Yale’s four-man faceoff wing rotation that includes Warner, Jason Alessi and William Weitzel.
“We know we’re not likely to give up a big run, because we’re probably going to regain enough possessions to stop that from happening,” Mooney added. “[Mackie] is definitely more tactical now, in terms of exits, whether he’s going forward or backward with the ball. He can out-muscle anyone after the clamp fight. He’s one of the strongest guys I’ve ever seen.”
The Bulldogs have not lost the faceoff battle since Cornell’s Paul Rasimowicz went 16-for-27 against Yale more than two months ago. At that point, the Bulldogs were on a five-game winning streak, which followed their season-opening 10-9 loss to Villanova in Dallas.
Also back then, Mackie was on the mend, after a sprained wrist had hindered him early in the season.
“Conor was nicked up and trying to fight through it, and he was facing some pretty good [opponents],” said first-year assistant coach Tom Compitello, referring to the likes of Bryant’s Kenna Massa, Rasimonicz and Noah Rak of UMass, each of whom got the best of Mackie during the season’s first six games.
Compitello also noted that Yale’s late-starting preseason — the Ivy League mandates that practice doesn’t start until Feb. 1, three weeks after most Division I teams are underway — didn’t help Mackie.
“But the No. 1 thing about Conor this year has been his willingness to really work on the details and nuances of his position and incorporate that into his game-day preparation,” Compitello added. “We’ve gotten him to slow down a bit, take a half a breath, figure out the best way out [of a draw battle]. He’s an emotional kid who wants to win every faceoff. You don’t have to change your tempo by being impatient. Stay in the flow and let your wings help you win it.”
Mackie showed striking progress when he bounced back from tough early-season showings in wins over Bryant and UMass by torching Fairfield, which has a capable faceoff man in Will Fox. Yale owed a nice chunk of its 8-3 win over the Stags to the Bulldogs’ 15-for-15 day at the X, where Mackie’s strength and quick hands weighed heavily.
Two weeks later on March 24, Mackie’s season took a dramatic turn against Princeton, when he led a unit that won 20 of 24 draws in an eight-goal victory.
Mackie has continued to be on the winning end every time out. His most notable recent success came against Albany on April 22.
The Yale ride smothered the Great Danes at times. Albany star attackman Connor Fields aggravated a knee injury in the first half and left the contest. It was all Bulldogs after that. And Mackie won his battle with Ierlan, as Yale won 13 of 21 faceoffs in a 14-6 rout.
“I’ve come very far, in terms of my technique. It looks very different from when I was a freshman,” said Mackie, who replaced Reese as the lead faceoff man last year and won 60.3 of his 408 attempts. “Between my weight transfer, how I get the top of my stick down, how I rotate, how I react if I don’t win the clamp, I don’t look nearly the same as I did in my first year. Just because you win the clamp doesn’t mean you win the faceoff. Just because you lose the clamp doesn’t mean the faceoff is lost. I used to try to do too much and just rely on being physical. That doesn’t work against the real good opponents out there.”
Shay admires the progress Mackie has made over the years, the way he had learned to keep his emotions in check and analyze instead, the way he stays on top of his fundamental approach instead of trying to bulldoze his way to faceoff wins, the way he has fallen in love with a role he wasn’t warm to for a while.
“Conor is a bright, intelligent kid. He spent a couple of years being a little hardheaded. He was a handful to deal with,” Shay said. “He’d been able to take care of that job with brute force as a high school player. We had to refine his ability and his willingness to be less of a brute.
“It took a while for us to meet in the middle. His maturity has been very impressive. We challenged him this season to more diligent and regimented in his weekly preparation. I can’t think of a player I’ve coached who hasn’t had to deal with a dose of humility.”
Mackie battled shoulder problems throughout his first two years and eventually had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and labrum. “Facing off became like doing one-armed pushups,” he said.
Mackie has been healthy down the stretch, and it showed in Yale’s NCAA tournament wins over UMass and Loyola.
In the first round, a 15-13 win over the red-hot Minutemen, he turned the tables on Rak and the Bulldogs won 20 of 29 draws. Against sixth-seeded Loyola in a driving rain that slowed the contest to a crawl, Yale won 12 of 17 faceoff attempts, as Mackie dominated Loyola’s tandem of Mike Orefice and Bailey Savio. Yale grinded its way to an 8-5 victory.
Shay said the Bulldogs are taking nothing for granted on Saturday. Never mind that first outing against Albany. Fields is moving well and playing very well while wearing a knee brace. Mackie expects to play another sound, smart, consistent game, truly with all due respect to Ierlan.
There is no shortage of admiration for the Albany sophomore, who has won 81 percent of his attempts and has been atop the NCAA leader board all year. Ierlan will make adjustments.
“[Mackie] knows there is a huge challenge in front of him,” Shay said. “No two games are created equally.”
“We have to trust what we do and respect each opponent like we do,” Mackie added. “You almost have to go into some games a little scared. You can’t try to do too much against a great team like [Albany].”