Penn State Lacrosse Will Never Pull Its Goalie
This is about the aftermath of a nightmare and what it really means to step up.
Connor Darcey stands perched between the pipes, heels creeping to the line as they often do, voice steering the defensive unit out of trouble as it always does.
You can probably hear him from every corner of Penn State’s lacrosse field despite a sore throat — a nuisance he jokes about after the game. Although he’s as relaxed as new goalies come, it’s all business until the clock runs out on Vermont. With 15 saves and the Big Ten’s first-ever defensive player of the week award under his belt, the redshirt sophomore’s first game as a starter is a sigh of relief.
No. 16 might be a worthy replacement for graduated superstar Austin Kaut, after all.
Coach Jeff Tambroni would later explain how the goalie position is much like quarterback in football. You have to motivate in the huddle and see the whole field — just like Tom Brady, Connor’s favorite QB. “It takes a little while to develop and mature [as a goalie]…not in a positional sense, but leadership.”
He isn’t quite ready in February…but he’ll get there.
Photo: Craig Houtz
It turns out the relief was justified. He gets there. Penn State’s season ends on May 2, a 14-9 loss to the lauded Johns Hopkins in the Big Ten semifinals. Connor’s 17 saves cement his standing at second-most saves per game in the conference, but the end of the season marks more than just an improvement in net.
In Connor, the team finds the leadership lost along with Kaut’s graduation. The pre-season questions are over — coach has his new permanent starter.
“And then he was gone…he was gone in every sense of the word.” Tambroni’s conclusive recollection is jarring. “It was very difficult for all of us to comprehend exactly what happened.”
Connor passed away at 21 in a car accident in the North End of Boston on June 12, 2015.
The team travels to his Wellesley, Massachusetts hometown to grieve. The line to pay respects takes two hours and 45 minutes to walk through, but standing in Connor’s signature converse, the wait might seem shorter. The team gets three comforting days together. Then they must go.
Photo: The Patriot Ledger
What are you supposed to you do when the only people who understand your pain are also the strongest reminders of what you lost?
As irreplaceable as Connor’s spot in the net is, Tambroni knows a dreaded day is coming. Soon the guys will be back in State College, forced to face each other, themselves, and a disturbingly empty net. “We had to pick up the grieving process in August and open those wounds again.”
Leaders don’t dwell, they reflect and squeeze whatever salvageable positivity out of a bleak situation, so Tambroni squeezes. Unfortunately he’s no stranger to guiding a team out of Hell. While he was Cornell’s coach in 2004, captain George Boiardi absorbed a shot to the chest during a game and died.
Connors’s death teaches Tambroni that surviving one tragedy doesn’t make another any easier. Anyone could’ve walked away at this juncture. This is a tipping point, a fork in the road, an “out” if you want one. Tambroni stays. He has a job to do, a family found in Penn State lacrosse, and a net to fill.
Enter Will Schreiner, an incoming sophomore who hadn’t yet seen the field in a game for the Nittany Lions.
“Will showed back up on campus with the other goaltenders and we had to start back at square one,” Tambroni said. “It was a daunting task. Not only was he starting for the first time, he was replacing Connor Darcey.”
Where some see insurmountable pressure on a benchwarmer, Schreiner sees an opportunity. Throughout the summer and fall, he spends painstaking hours perfecting basic skills and watching film to feel more comfortable between the pipes. He doesn’t have his heart set on many personal goals like a specific save percentage, but he has big dreams for the team: a Big Ten championship win and an NCAA tournament run.
It’s April 3, 2016 and Penn State is in Buckeye territory for the Big Ten opener. Schreiner hits the pipes a few times and looks up to the sky — his pregame ritual. He finds Connor.
“I know you’re here Connor. I’m playing this game for you. I’m protecting this net for you.”
His career-high 15 saves are the difference in a 6-5 battle.
Schreiner’s relationship with Connor extends further. Sometimes they’ll talk after a bad game, sometimes after a good one. He describes it as a stream of ongoing conversation. Sometimes Connor’s Dad, Bill Darcey, even texts Schreiner words of encouragement.
Juggling the weight of such a legacy while stepping up as “quarterback” of the defensive unit could get messy. That is, if this was any other group of guys. Connor’s spirit lives on every day but never impedes, and that’s exactly how his mom, Penny Darcey, remembers him.
“Connor had an unbelievably competitive spirit, but when you first met him, he seemed quiet and observant,” she said. “He never bragged, he just knew he had it. I have felt that spirit coming through the boys this year on the field.”
The team knows the last thing Schreiner wants to do is replace him. “It’s probably as awkward for my teammates as it is for me at certain points,” said Schreiner of his new place in the net. “But the team, the seniors have been awesome. I never expected it to be as good as it’s been this year.”
327 days after the tragedy, Tambroni sits in a conference room designed for a coach’s standard “we’re excited for this opportunity” spiel. He could give one and get on with his day. With a team to prepare for the upcoming Big Ten tournament and three little girls at home, he surely has better things to do. Instead, he exceeds expectations again and he discusses last week’s senior day, likely reopening the wounds.
“As coaches, we’re not just sideline guidance for Xs and Os and game management, but for life,” he says. “This situation [Connor’s death] has magnified that partnership infinitely.”
This attitude is team-wide. Penny received a Mother’s Day card from one player a few days ago. She said the relationships formed between the parents will last a lifetime. “All because of lacrosse.”
James Burke, senior midfielder and one of Connor’s closest friends since high school, addresses the media after the emotional senior day as well. He’s sporting a beaded bracelet with “JCD” strewn across it. He wears no. 16 this season, keeping his friend and fellow Massachusetts native’s spirit alive on the field. He says it’s an honor to wear it, but you can tell it’s a deeply intimate relationship. Maybe Burke doesn’t have the words to fully explain. Maybe he just doesn’t want to tell people who will never understand.
He’s quietly confident, just like his old friend. Tambroni harps on the fact that “winning games” for Connor is not the way to honor him — living like him is. Whoever wears the jersey next better deserve it just as much as Burke does in this aspect.
Maybe come 2020 it will be Connor’s brother, Teddy. He committed to Penn State back in January. The family ties are impossible to deny, but they won’t diminish Teddy as an individual.
“We want him to pursue his own path rather than feel like he is trying to fill Connor’s shoes,” Penny said. “As one coach said, Connor opened the door, but Teddy earned the right to walk through it.”
At the very start of the nightmare, the Darceys and Tambroni voiced concern about keeping Connor’s spirit alive. Penny said initially one of her biggest fears was that Connor would be forgotten. It’s an impossible question and a delicate balance: How do you make sure someone who meant the world to you is remembered forever?
“Penn state has done the complete opposite. It has embraced his legacy and kept his spirit alive.”
Almost a year later, it’s clear they need not worry. Connor’s voice speaks for itself and it’s not going anywhere.
Yes, he’s there at the end of every huddle when the team shouts “16.” You can also find him in the converse sneakers dangling throughout the backyard of the lacrosse house. But mostly, he’s there in the quiet courage the ones he left behind exude every day.