Welcome Back, Ivy League. College Lacrosse Missed You.

Yale senior star defenseman Chris Fake thinks back to the excitement he felt as the fall semester of 2021 approached. Like numerous sports at the school and throughout the Ivy League, men’s lacrosse was about to reappear, following a pandemic-induced shutdown that had erased an unprecedented two straight spring seasons.

Fake recalls the Bulldogs performing solidly in a fall scrimmage against Ohio State. Mostly, he remembers the short warm-up season as an exhilarating return — finally — to the game he craves, around the coaches and teammates he loves.

From hanging out in the locker room to film study, meetings and weightlifting to getting after it on the practice field, the calisthenics of playing the game, of competing and chasing team goals were truly, gloriously back and on schedule.

It was also a curious and unsettling time. Reflecting rosters throughout the Ivy League, the picture in New Haven had changed dramatically during the COVID-19 darkness. At least half of Yale’s team now consisted of true freshmen and older freshman-eligible players who had never officially or had barely played for the Bulldogs.

“Coming into the season, I felt we had a lot of good, young talent, like a lot of Ivy League teams,” says Fake, a key performer from Yale’s only NCAA title team and one of half a dozen holdovers from that 2018 squad. “But I really had no idea how [Yale] was going to be this year. There was a lot of uncertainty.”

“Our team could have beaten anybody last year.”

— Penn midfielder Sam Handley

With four days left in the 2022 regular season, this much appears certain.

The Ivy League, the only conference in Division I sidelined for nearly the entire spring of 2021 — a year after the emerging pandemic forced the indefinite nationwide shutdown of all college sports by mid-March of 2020 — has returned and served notice with an impressive message.

The newest version of Ivy men’s lacrosse looks a lot like what fans and observers have come to expect from the conference that typically sends two or three teams to the NCAA tournament. This year, there could be as many as five. Six, even.

Despite the exodus of much talent over the past two years due to graduations, post-graduate restrictions on playing intercollegiate sports and other transfer circumstances, the league has weathered its COVID nightmare with startling success.

Consider that six of the seven Ivy League teams are ranked in the Nike/USA Lacrosse Division I Men’s Top 20, more than any other conference. No. 5 Brown, No. 6 Yale, No. 10 Cornell, No. 11 Princeton and No. 12 Penn have spent considerable time in the top 10. The Big Ten, led by top-ranked Maryland, the lone unbeaten team in Division I, is the only other conference that has had as many as three schools ranked in the top 10 at the same time this season.

The Ivy’s six ranked teams, which includes No. 16 Harvard, won a combined 35 of 42 non-conference games — 83.3 percent. In the first half of conference play, close, high-scoring games were plentiful. The best example showed on March 19, with three one-goal contests. Harvard edged Brown 12-11. Cornell took a 12-5 lead against Yale then hung on to prevail 13-12. The Princeton-Penn clash topped them both, as the Tigers outlasted Penn 21-20 in an overtime classic.

Welcome back Ivy League, indeed.

“Based on the Division I landscape, I could not have guessed the league was going to be this good,” Fake said. “But we know the talent is there, and all of the other [Ivy League] kids are in the same position we are. [Many of them] hadn’t played in two years. If they’re like us, they’re playing every day like it’s their last day. So I guess it’s not that surprising.”

“My guys were a very hungry, dialed-in group when they got back on campus,” Princeton coach Matt Madalon said. “Every practice, every game, every locker room hangout time, they cherish it all more.”

Madolon’s Tigers finished tied for third place in the Ivy League with Harvard under third-year coach Gerry Byrne, who for the first time is guiding the Crimson for a full season, and Penn. The Quakers got into the conference tournament based on tiebreakers.

“With all the stuff that was taken from them, even when their day-to-day work gets hard, it’s incredible to be back together in school and playing again,” Madalon said. “From our vantage point [as coaches], it’s not surprising to see the great battles again. It’s an awesome league. There are a lot of great coaching staffs and recruiters here.”

Under second-year coach and former Cornell lacrosse great Connor Buczek, a 2015 graduate — and with the critical help of young, key contributors such as sophomore attackman C.J. Kirst (63 points through 14 games) — the Big Red won 10 of their first 11 and finished tied with Yale and Brown at the top of the Ivy standings.

Four of Cornell’s first 10 wins were one-goal decisions, including its 13-12 victory over the Bulldogs, who edged Princeton and Penn by combined three goals. The Quakers dropped three of their first four Ivy games to Princeton, Yale and Brown by a combined four goals. Fittingly, Penn notched its first conference win by knocking off Cornell 15-11.

“With the quality of teams in our league the way our conference schedule is set up — playing Princeton, Cornell and Yale first — we’re used to this. Just trying to get better each week,” Penn coach Mike Murphy said. “The room for growth is pretty big, when you consider we hadn’t played a game in two years and we’re basically playing with three classes of freshmen. “A bunch of Ivy League teams are going to be a lot better in May than in March.”

Brown earned the top seed and is hosting the Ivy League tournament, starting with tonight’s semifinals. Yale and Cornell square off at 6 p.m. Eastern, followed by Penn versus Brown. The winners advance to Sunday’s championship game at 12 p.m. Eastern. All games are on ESPNU.