Commentary

Yale enjoying time at the top

Originally Published: January 24, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Denny Kearney has seen Yale go from middle-of-the-pack in its conference his freshman season to a team that's ranked No. 1 in the nation.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Miller
Yale AthleticsSophomore Andrew Miller leads Yale in assists.

"Now, it's almost impossible to get tickets, unless you get them in advance," the senior forward said of Yale's home games. He added with a laugh, "It's kind of a headache for those people who were regulars before."

Suffice to say, it's an annoyance the Yale fans can live with, because it means the Bulldogs are playing extremely well. This past weekend at Ingalls Rink in New Haven, Conn., Yale beat Clarkson 5-2 on Friday and St. Lawrence 4-1 on Saturday. The Bulldogs bounced back strongly from their second loss of the season, Jan. 16 at Brown, a 3-2 defeat that ended a 10-game winning streak but didn't knock them out of the top spot in the rankings.

Yale (17-2) is seeking its first NCAA championship in the sport. The Bulldogs have a good combination of seasoned veterans such as Kearney and dynamic younger players like sophomore assists leader Andrew Miller and freshman Kenny Agostino, who has scored seven goals in Yale's past seven games.

Guiding the squad is former Yale goalie Keith Allain, who is in his fifth season at his alma mater after many years coaching pros. He was an assistant coach with the St. Louis Blues from 1998-2006 until returning to Yale, where he'd played from 1976-80 and been an assistant from '82-85.

When Yale let go longtime coach Tim Taylor in 2006 after a 10-20-3 season and eight-year absence from the NCAA tournament, he and his supporters were upset. But the hiring of a successful alum -- Allain won 31 games in goal for Yale -- helped mend things. Allain had both played for and coached with Taylor at Yale.

The Bulldogs were 11-17-3 in Allain's first season, then 16-14-4 in the freshman year of the current seniors. The next season, though, the Bulldogs were 24-8-2 and finished atop the ECAC, advancing to the NCAA tournament.

Last season, they were 21-10-3 -- once again best in the ECAC standings -- and then pulled a big upset in the NCAA tournament, beating North Dakota 3-2. Allain surprised everyone when he started Ryan Rondeau in goal in that game; Rondeau had not played most of the season.

In the regional final, Yale lost 9-7 to eventual national champ Boston College. Rondeau was among those who've returned to make this season's Bulldogs one of the nation's most formidable teams.

Kearney, who has 10 goals and 14 assists, is a candidate along with teammate Broc Little for the Hobey Baker award, given annually to college hockey's top player.

"The culture has changed since I came in a freshman," said Kearney, who is from Hanover, N.H. "We have a large senior class and that experience has really paid off."

Last season was special to Kearney both because of Yale's NCAA tournament success and a big victory in his family. His older sister, Hannah, won the moguls skiing gold medal the day after the opening ceremonies at the Vancouver Olympics, becoming the United States' first winner in the 2010 Winter Games.

That same night, Feb. 13, Yale won in overtime against Cornell. On the ride back to campus, the Yale players were able to pick up the Olympics broadcast of Hannah's event via Wi-Fi on someone's laptop.

"It was a funny scene on the back of the bus -- the whole team trying to huddle around this little computer watching it," Kearney said. "We were just waiting for her score to come up, and when it did, everyone was going crazy. They were kind of jumping on me and hitting me. I was really excited for her and just so proud."

Hannah would like nothing more than to celebrate her younger brother's winning an NCAA title this year. For Yale to do that, the Bulldogs will have to continue doing all the things well that they have thus far. They're a strong penalty-killing team, multidimensional on offense and -- as the bus celebration for the sibling of a teammate suggests -- a very cohesive unit.

"Our senior class is filled with talent and personality," said Miller, who is from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and has 21 assists along with five goals. "They work hard every day and they are always having fun around the rink. They create an atmosphere where kids are excited to come to the rink everyday and love to compete on the ice and in the weight room all the time."

Around the nation

Weekend upsets: College hockey saw some favorites fall, including No. 7 New Hampshire to No. 15 Boston University on Saturday, and Nebraska Omaha over No. 2 North Dakota and Ohio State over No. 8 Notre Dame on Friday.

North Dakota and Notre Dame did come back Saturday, though, to beat their Friday foes.

Aggies win dual: In a matchup of two of the nation's top track and field programs Saturday, Texas A&M defeated LSU in a dual meet at College Station, Texas. Sprinter Gerald Phiri, a senior from Sheffield, England, won the 60- and 200-meter races in leading the Aggies men past the Tigers 84-75. Phiri's times were 6.63 seconds and a career-best 20.80

On the women's side, Texas A&M won 91-67, led by victories in the 200 (22.95) and 400 (52.97) by Jessica Beard, a senior from Euclid, Ohio. Beard already has had some international success, as she helped the U.S. 4x400 squad win gold at the world championships in 2009. She ran during the prelims at that meet, where she was the youngest member on Team USA at age 20.

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.