“Penn State lacrosse was hot in the 80s,” senior defender Erika Spilker said ahead of the team’s second straight Final Four.
The program won all five of its national championships in an 11-year span from 1978 to 1989. Though the current Nittany Lions went home a game earlier than they would have liked, falling to No. 1 Maryland 20-10 Friday at Gillette Stadium, there’s no doubt Missy Doherty has them on a trajectory to greatness once again.
Doherty’s been a winner all her life, capturing three national titles during her playing days as a Terrapin in the mid-90s. She immediately instilled that mentality in her Nittany Lions upon arriving in University Park seven years ago. After reaching the NCAA Tournament just twice from 2000-2011, Penn State has made the 16-team field each of the last six seasons.
“I told them, ‘You have to keep knocking on the door before you can go through it.’ And we don’t do that without the leadership of our seniors,” Doherty said.
Big Ten Attacker of the Year Steph Lazo, who finished her Penn State career seventh on the all-time points list with 211, played a major part in returning this program to the national stage. Lazo scored the most points this season (89) of any Nittany Lion since the team’s last national championship in ’89. Her heralded senior class won 57 games over the last four years — the best mark since the Class of 1992.
“You never wanna go out this way your senior year, but I’m just so proud of this team, and I’m so proud of the four years that my senior class had here,” Lazo said choking back tears. “[The team’s] future looks super bright.”
Replacing six starters in Spilker, Lazo, Abby Smucker, Natalie Schmitt, Taylor Bleistein, and goalie Cat Rainone will be a challenge, but the Nittany Lions return plenty of leadership and 70 percent of their offensive production next season.
Penn State shattered its record for team goals in a season with 303 this spring — 23 more than ever before. Rising junior Madison Carter and returning captain Katie O’Donnell form one of the Big Ten’s most exciting duos, finishing second and third in the conference in goals with 70 and 65, respectively. Carter is only the fifth player in program history to score 70 or more goals in a season, following in the footsteps of Candy Finn (’80, ’81), Marsha Florio (’85), Maggy Dunphy (’86), and Tami Worley (’89).
Maria Auth, Hayley DeAgostine, and Kristin Roberto turned in impressive freshman campaigns, while Kayla Brisolari, Lucy Haubold, and Kelly Daggett joined Carter in having excellent sophomore years. O’Donnell, Brisolari, and rising senior Maggie Gallagher, who tied a career-high with a hat trick in Foxborough, will serve as captains in 2018. The pieces are there for another deep run if Doherty can successfully manage a changing of the guard on defense.
This year’s Final Four featured quite a storyline surrounding the head coaches. Cindy Timchal coached Doherty, Boston College’s Acacia Walker, and Maryland’s Cathy Reese during a dominant tenure in College Park before taking the job at Navy in 2006. Under Timchal, the Terps won seven national titles in a row and 50 straight games from 1995-01. Doherty discussed her former coach’s impact in terms of growing the game at Friday’s press conference.
“To see all she’s done for the sport, fighting for women in sports for so long, you start to take for granted the things that she worked to get,” Doherty said. “Hopefully the three of us that are here this weekend are doing a decent job of continuing to represent women’s athletics in the best way possible and continuing to propel her vision and tradition on.”
Maryland outlasted a stingy Eagles squad that was making its first championship weekend appearance, 16-13, to win its record 13th national title Sunday. With Doherty at the helm, Penn State will only continue to open more doors. Perhaps a sixth national championship will soon be behind one of them.
“This women’s tournament was crazy this year…to be a part of that excitement and that success was just an awesome experience,” Doherty said. “Certainly [Friday’s] game doesn’t take away from the energy our team had and how proud I am of them.”