By Joel Alderman
Student-athletes representing Yale University are usually distinguished more by their academic credentials and achievements than by their successes in intercollegiate sports competition. In the year 2014, however, Yale gained acclaim from the nation’s sports media and public for signature wins by three of its teams, which, like all of them, consisted only of true student-athletes. The baseball, football and basketball teams each rose to the occasion to pull off startling victories.
Now that 2014 has drawn to a close, we are presenting a summary about the upstart Bulldog teams who, in one year, had three signature wins, a number that may not be equaled for a long time, if ever.
BASEBALL: YALE 8 LSU 7
This year Yale will be observing the 150th anniversary of its first baseball game, which was against Wesleyan in 1865.
In February of 2014, before setting foot on a baseball field, the team flew to Baton Rouge, the state capital of Louisiana, for a three game series against LSU. The Tigers already had eight games under their belt and were outdoors practicing or playing for almost two months.
Yale’s assignment was huge, having to face the third ranked team in the country in one of the hotbeds of college baseball. The LSU program had won the College World Series in 2009.
The first game, on a Friday night, produced no surprises. Yale was bombed 19-0. The next afternoon the Bulldogs did much better, but still lost, 3-0.
The getaway game was on Sunday, March 2nd. There was an attendance of 10,000 (yes, 10,000 for a routine college baseball game) who packed the state-of-the-art stadium. They watched in disbelief as Yale pulled out an 8-7 victory.
What made the win more remarkable was that LSU had led, 6-0, after four innings, before Yale scored four times in the fifth on five consecutive singles. LSU then picked up a run in the bottom of that inning and still led, 7-4. That was the last run the Tigers would get.
In the seventh inning, a walk and two doubles brought the Ivy Leaguers all the way back to tie the game, 7-7.
Christopher Greenwood Campbell, Jr., who prefers to be called Green Campbell, comes from Shreveport, La. He was back in his home state as Yale’s center fielder. His grandfather, Bo Campbell, played football for LSU in the 1960s and is a benefactor of the university.
Bo, a past president of the Tiger Athletic Foundation, has a campus auditorium-lecture hall named for him. He is the one who encouraged LSU to invite Yale to play in Baton Rouge, probably so he could see his grandson play there for the Bulldogs.
In the top of the eighth, Green Campbell led off with a bunt single, his second hit of the day, and moved to third on two sacrifices. When the LSU pitcher threw a come-backer wide of first base, Campbell scored the go-ahead run. Yale miraculously had an 8-7 lead.
The Yale junior’s contribution did not end there. In the bottom of the eighth, LSU had a man on second with two outs. Then on a fly ball to left, Campbell raced to his right and made a sensational diving catch that saved a run and possibly two on what might have been an inside the park homer. The play was so good that its video was posted on YouTube.
Although the Tigers had the potential tying and winning runs on third and second with two outs in the ninth, the Bulldogs retired the next batter on a fly ball to right field. It sent the big crowd home, mostly of them in disbelief. Campbell had scored the winning run and made the game saving catch against a team that was to go on to the NCAA regionals and finish with a 46-16-1 record.
Return of the native
Afterwards, Green said, “To be in my home state playing in front of my whole family, and almost all of my best friends, was just an incredible feeling. I grew up going to LSU baseball games and dreaming to play in Alex Box stadium, and to get a win there against all odds was a dream come true.”
The LSU coach, Paul Mainieri, said “a lot of credit goes to Yale. They played their hearts out today. They got themselves back in the game and took advantage of a few things we didn’t do. They deserve to win. They did more than we did.”
That game was Yale’s highlight of 2014, during which it went as far as a playoff for the championship of the Red Rolfe Division of the Ivy League. The Bulldogs lost that one to Dartmouth, but could still relish that early season victory over the third ranked team in the nation.
FOOTBALL: YALE 49 ARMY 43 (overtime)
The feature game in the 100th anniversary year of the Yale Bowl took place on the summer-like day of Sept. 27th. The visiting team was the United States Military Academy at West Point, popularly known as Army. The Black Knights were traditional opponents of Yale, going back to when they were known more accurately as the Cadets.
The two institutions first played in 1893. They had not met in the Yale Bowl since 1988, but did play in 1996 at West Point. The game in 2014 matching Army, of the FBS, and Yale, an FCS team, was aided by a waiver from the NCAA so as not to effect Army’s eligibility for a Bowl game.
It turned out that the only Bowl game Army would play in 2014 was at the Bowl in New Haven.
After pre-game pomp, featuring parachute jumpers, almost 1,000 cadets, and the great U.S. Military Academy band, Army took the lead four times, twice by 14 points. But Yale kept coming back to tie.
Varga the tie and the win
The Bulldogs last tied the score at 43-43 on a 10-yard burst by Tyler Varga, with 1:42 remaining in regulation. Varga finished the day with five touchdowns, and 185 yards rushing on 28 carries, When Army missed a 42-yard field goal attempt as time expired, overtime followed.
Army had the first possession, and again they tried and failed to take the lead on a field goal, this time from 25 yards out.
Yale was next to put the ball in play. When Varga went over the goal line from the three, Yale had a 49-43 victory. It was the first and only time during the entire contest that Yale led.
The winning touchdown was shown on television sports shows throughout the country, including ESPN’s College Football Final and NFL Primetime.
The over 1,400 member Football Writers Association of America made Yale its “Big Game National Team of the Week.” Only two other FCS teams had ever been given that label.
Varga was named Player of the Week by Sports Network, the New England Football Writers Association, collegefootballperformance.com, collegesportsmadness.com, and the Ivy League.
Varga said. “There are 105 guys who believed we could get something done, but outside of that, I don’t know who believed. But all that counts is us.”
Army coach, Jeff Monken, told a press conference at West Point two days later that “Varga could play at a lot of places” and that Yale’s offensive line “was better than a lot of Division I offensive lines that I’ve coached against.”
Army has fallen on tough times in recent years, and is a shadow of what it once was. Yet this was still a game between FBS and FCS teams, and West Point was expected by most who follow college football to defeat Yale without much trouble.
Coach Monken disagreed. “I think everybody else considered us as a favorite and them the underdog. I don’t know why people would think that.”
It turned out that he was right. Yale had a win that it will long treasure.
BASKETBALL: Yale 45 UConn 44
The third and most recent eye opener in 2014 was on December 6th at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, where Yale was paired with the University of Connecticut in a battle of the dogs (Bulldogs vs. Huskies). UConn had never lost to an in-state opponent on its own floor in 25 years, and all told had won 68 in a row against Nutmeg foes, including 13 over Yale.
The last time Yale had beaten UConn was at the Payne Whitney Gymnasium in New Haven on Dec. 2, 1986, when the NBA bound Chris Dudley was in the lineup. The Bulldogs won, 77-75, after Connecticut sent the game into overtime in the final seconds.
Making the recent contest so intriguing was that the Bulldogs were going up against the school whose team had won the NCAA Tournament in April, although not with all of the same players.
Being the national champion still carried a certain image of near invincibility, especially playing at home against a team from the Ivy League, which does not give athletic scholarships.
The Huskies at the time were ranked 23rd in the USA Today Coaches Poll, and Yale had not beaten a team in the top-25 in 62 years, the last time being in 1952 over No. 18 Colorado.
However, Yale in the current season is much better than the typical Ivy League team. Most of its players are back from last season. An exception is Bridgeport’s Brandon Sherrod, who probably would have been a starter except for taking the year off from college to go on tour with the famous Yale Whiffenpoofs singing group.
Most of the Bulldogs who went to Storrs had the benefit of having honed their skills in the last post season, winning four games in the College Insider Tournament.
UConn, coming off two straight losses, certainly did not underestimate Yale, although the majority of its fans probably did. That may explain why they looked so shocked (see photo) when Jack Montague swished a 3-pointer from the corner, with just 1.7 seconds left, for the winning basket.
Yale had taken it to the Huskies from the start, leading by 12 in the first half and 24-19 at the intermission. The Bulldogs led for all but three and a half minutes of play.
It took two big breaks at the end for Yale to get the win. In front by two points with 11 seconds remaining, UConn’s Ryan Boatright missed the front end of a one-and-one to keep the Bulldogs in contention. That was the first break.
3.5 seconds of ecstasy for Yale and heartbreak for UConn
Although UConn was a 10-1/2 point favorite, Yale dominated off the boards throughout the game. After the missed foul shot, Yale grabbed the rebound. As Justin Sears drove down court, he fumbled the ball and it went over the end line with 3.5 seconds remaining. Possession was first awarded to UConn, which would probably have sealed the outcome.
However, the officials took a look at the video replay and reversed the call, giving Yale the out of bounds play. That was the second big break.
What happened after that is still being dissected and analyzed. Montague took the inbounds pass from Javier Duran and made the corner 3-pointer that became the featured play on Sports Center that night.
Montague’s shot was heard around Connecticut
Bobby Thompson’s historic come from behind home run for the New York Giants, ending the 1951 playoffs with the Brooklyn Dodgers, is known as “The shot that was heard around the world.”
It follows that Jack Montague’s 3-pointer, which turned a near certain UConn victory into defeat, was “The shot that was heard around Connecticut.”
“I crossed from one side to the other,” Montague said soon afterwards. “My man got stuck in traffic, and Javier found me. I felt like I was open so I let it go.”
The big play was the lead video that night on ESPN Sports Center.
Yale’s coach, James Jones, believed his team “was ready to do this,” pointing to “a great effort on the defensive end. We played through a lot of adversity.”
A naturally disappointed UConn coach, Kevin Ollie, said that Montague made “a great shot, but (defensively) poor communication from us.”
Yale won, 45-44, the first time an Ivy League team defeated a defending national champion since Princeton surprised UCLA in the opening round of the 1996 NCAA tournament.
It may have been Yale’s greatest signature basketball victory ever. But one of Yale’s stars, Javier Duran, wasn’t too sure. Speaking as a dedicated Yale man, he told a TV interviewer that a bigger win may have been in a game last season. The opponent that night?
Harvard, of course.
Baseball, with Green Campbell, against LSU
Football, with Tyler Varga, against Army
Basketball, with Jack Montague, against UConn
Those were the games and names that gave Yale’s sports programs national recognition in 2014. They brought instant athletic credibility to an institution which had long ago achieved distinction academically.
Will there ever be another year for Yale sports like the one just ended, or were the Yale student-athletes just over-achievers?
The answer will have to wait. The year 2015 is just beginning.