NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The Tewaaraton Award for the top player in college lacrosse has never been won by a face-off specialist. The closest was Denver's Trevor Baptiste, named a finalist in 2017 and 2018.
Yale coach Andy Shay, a member of the award's voting committee, admits specialists are considered differently. After all, the position is known by the acronym FOGO, for face-off, get off.
But if Baptiste brought recognition to the importance of a dominant face-off specialist, Yale's T.D. Ierlan could be the one to break the glass ceiling.
Ierlan, along with classmate Jackson Morrill, on Thursday was named one of 25 nominees for the Tewaaraton Award. The junior leads the nation in face-off win percentage at 77.6 and ground balls per-game (14.1).
He's been instrumental to the success of No. 5 Yale, which completes the regular season Saturday at archrival Harvard (3:30 p.m., ESPN+).
Shay knew he was getting the country's best in Ierlan. He set an NCAA Division I record by winning 79.1 percent of face-offs last spring at Albany before announcing his decision to transfer to Yale.
He'd game-planned for Ierlan twice last year, both Yale wins, including in the national semifinals at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. Yet witnessing Ierlan's dominance on a daily basis has given Shay a new perspective.
"You don't realize how luxurious he is until he's on your roster," Shay said. "I had a moment with (Albany coach) Scott Marr after (Yale's 10-5 win last Friday) and he was lamenting not having him and I was patting him on the back. It's incredible what he does. I've never seen anything like what he can do. He's the best I've ever seen and may be the best that's ever done it."
Ierlan's ability to win face-offs helped carry Yale to a pair of crucial early-season wins.
The Bulldogs dropped the season opener to Villanova in overtime. But he would take 25-of-31 face-offs in a 14-13 win over Penn State -- still the lone blemish this season for the top-ranked Nittany Lions. A week later, he was 18-of-26 in a one-goal win over UMass.
His only subpar performance came at Penn on March 30. Kyle Gallagher, the Quakers junior face-off man, nearly matched Ierlan draw-for-draw in Penn's triple-overtime victory.
In four games since, all Yale wins, Ierlan has been winning face-offs at an 84.5 percent clip. The added possessions in lacrosse's philosophy of face-offs after every goal have made scoring plays the equivalent of "make it, take it." The Bulldogs average nearly 18 more shots per game than opponents this season.
"It's almost unfair," Shay said. "I don't know when they stopped doing the jump ball after every basket because the taller guys were always winning. A kid like that? They're going to change the rules. Hopefully they don't in the next two years."
It's possible that Ierlan understands the art of winning face-offs better than any player or coach in the country, refining his technique through years of hard work.
He'd played lacrosse as a freshman in high school but didn't begin taking face-offs until his sophomore year. Ierlan was a standout wrestler at Victor (N.Y.) High -- he set the school record with 161 career wins. Jim Andre, the school's lacrosse coach, felt those skills translated well to face-offs.
Ierlan began working with Drew Simoneau, a college player at nearby Nazareth College and now the face-off specialist for the Dallas Rattlers of Major League Lacrosse, a partnership that continues to this day.
"I wouldn't be where I am today without him," Ierlan said.
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Though Ierlan won 83 percent of draws over his final three years of high school, he cringes watching old video of himself.
"I played what I thought was pretty well back then," Ierlan said. "Now I look back and it's not that great. But I stuck with it."
At Albany, he was second only to Baptiste with a 70.8 win percentage, earning third-team All-American and the America East rookie of the year. A year later, his mind-boggling numbers included all-time records for win percentage, total face-off wins and ground balls as the Great Danes reached the national semifinals.
Yale lost Tewaaraton Award winner Ben Reeves and several other key seniors from its national championship team. It hasn't missed a step in the quest to repeat, due in large part to Ierlan's presence on the face-off X.
Practices each day include grueling sessions with Yale's fellow face-off specialist Joe Neuman and Jack Mattei. The three spend inordinate amounts of time together.
"Too much," Ierlan laughs. "I think we're ready to kill each other by the end of every week. We got to the point yesterday, where I said 'guys, this is going to suck because I'm going to be really mean this week.' We all get on each other's nerves, but it's good."
Shay says it's a collaborative effort between the three. They push each other to be better through sheer force of competition, but look out for one another by finding flaws in technique or pointing out the best ways to work with Yale's wing men.
"It's their own little club," Shay said. "They have their own language. They hang out at practice together. Sometimes they let me hang out with them. Not too much. But they all have different roles and support each other if one is seeing something the other's not seeing. T.D. listens to them and understands they might see things he's not from his position."
Winning the Tewaaraton Award won't be easy. Reeves was the ninth straight attacker to capture the honors. Penn State's Grant Ament is averaging almost 7.5 points-per game. Loyola's Pat Spencer has 40 goals and 50 assists.
Ierlan has been every bit as dominant in different ways. Should Yale advance to another Final Four, the selection committee will be forced to seriously consider revising their criteria.
"In terms of what he does for our team, he deserves it," Shay said.
Any opposing coach whose helplessly watched Ierlan dominate this year would surely agree.
This article is written by Chip Malafronte from New Haven Register, Conn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.