No. 1 Penn State Men’s Lacrosse’s Road To The Top Of The Rankings

When No. 1 Penn State men’s lacrosse finishes its non-conference schedule on the road against Cleveland State on Saturday, the Nittany Lions will enter Big Ten play having asserted themselves as the top team in the nation.

From the get-go, Penn State lived up to the high expectations set before the season, putting on dazzling offensive displays against Villanova Robert Morris, and Stony Brook in its first three games.

The Nittany Lions’ first serious test against elite competition involved a visit to defending national champion Yale. The Nittany Lions trailed by five goals at one point but managed to claw their way back into the game. They scored five of the last six goals of the game to pull themselves within one with a minute left. The comeback, however, wasn’t enough.

Although the game didn’t go how he had hoped, coach Jeff Tambroni believed it was an important step for his team.

“When we came back from the Yale game, I think at least as a coaching staff, we felt really good about that experience,” Tambroni said. “Not about the result, but about the experience. We knew we were going to go on the road, play a really competitive team, be in a very hostile environment, and we were forced to be in a position to test our character.

“So we came back and we felt that we had probably learned more lessons in that game than we had all year.”

Tambroni also stressed to his players not to dwell on just one game.

“It’s a long journey,” he said. “If you get too caught up on one day in a practice, or one result in a game, and feel too good about yourself or start to beat yourself up too much, you can really cause a momentum swing that’s just completely unnecessary.”

The Nittany Lions nearly lost their second consecutive game to Penn a week later. Tambroni’s squad found itself down by a goal in the waning minutes once again, but senior midfielder Nick Spillane played hero with two goals.

Redshirt junior attackman Grant Ament believes the close call against Penn served as even more of a wake-up call than the loss against Yale.

“I would actually say the Penn game was more humbling than the Yale game,” Ament said. “We lost by one against Yale and we didn’t have the ball 80 percent of the time. Penn kind of gave us a run for our money — [if we] made a few plays a little bit differently, we could have lost that game pretty easily.”

Tambroni does realize the importance that two-game stretch had on his team. Every game brings its own lessons to the team, but that two-game stretch in particular taught the team a lot about its identity because of how close both contests were.

In particular, the Nittany Lions’ top face-off man, junior Gerard Arceri, wasn’t quite himself during those two games. Arceri went up against one of the best face-off specialists in the country against Yale, and he won only four of the 23 faceoffs in the defeat. Arceri then went 17-for-31 on faceoffs against Penn, which was an improvement, but still not up to his 63.7 average winning percentage on draws.

It isn’t a coincidence that the games that Penn State has struggled in this season have come when Arceri hasn’t been at his best. Tambroni thinks the Yale game was a growing experience for his star face-off specialist and his teammates.

“I think that [game] allowed us to step back at the face-off X to look at our preparation. It allowed Gerard to look himself in the mirror and ask what he was doing leading up into that game,” Tambroni said. “It was a one-game thing. We weren’t overly concerned with his wins or losses in that particular game, but it’s a luxury that we tend to take for granted in terms of how much he really does for us.

“I think it reset our whole team — we needed to just be better in 50-50 [situations].”

Penn State’s two most recent games were played at the Crown Lacrosse Classic in Charlotte, NC. The Nittany Lions took on then-No. 3 Cornell and Jacksonville and won both games decisively — in no small part thanks to Arceri’s return to form.

Though Arceri is a main reason for Penn State’s early success, he isn’t the only important piece. Think of Arceri as the key that turns the Penn State engine — Grant Ament — on. The Nittany Lions are tough to beat when Arceri consistently gives the redshirt junior opportunities to run the offense.

Ament may very well be the leading candidate for the Tewaaraton Award — college lacrosse’s Heisman Trophy. He leads the Nittany Lions with 46 assists, and he’s scored 10 goals as well. His eight points per game and 6.87 assists per game also lead the nation. Ament is showing no signs of rust after missing all of last season with a lower-body injury.

Junior Mac O’Keefe is reaping the benefits of the increased attention paid to Ament by opposing defenses. The sniper has 31 goals this season, which leads the nation as well. O’Keefe was recently named to the Tewaaraton Award watch list alongside Ament and Gerard Arceri.

Ament says the team’s confidence level this season is one of the biggest reasons for the early success.

“I’ve never felt we’ve hit a panic button per se, no matter what the situation is in a game,” he said. “Guys aren’t afraid to make plays. I think that was partially an issue last year — offensively, anybody’s willing to make a play, whether there’s a minute left in the game or the game’s just starting.”

The team’s high confidence level was backed up by the most recent rankings as Penn State moved up to become the No. 1 team in the nation. Tambroni knows that his team will respond well to the increased attention.

“I’d be lying if I said [the No. 1 ranking] doesn’t matter to our guys. At the same time,” Tambroni said. “This is a more mature group, so I don’t think it matters to a point where they’re going to be different in their approach or preparation. We talked to our guys about not running away from it and embracing the opportunity.”

Penn State hadn’t earned the top spot in the rankings since 2017, but the veteran Ament is not surprised by his team’s success. He realizes, however, the Nittany Lions could be knocked off their perch “on any given Saturday.”

According to the star attackman, the team’s mindset cannot change now, especially with Big Ten play looming large.

“We can be a very good team when we want to be,” Ament said. “As long as we put our minds in the right spot and keep the simplicity of the game, it can be very easy and very fun, but also look pretty.”

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About the Author

Navin Zachariah

Navin is just your average Dallas Cowboys fan from "right outside of Philly." A biology major, Navin hopes to one day cure the Cowboys of Jason Garrett. He is one of the select few who actually like The Chainsmokers. And if you see someone who looks exactly like him around campus, it could actually be his identical twin brother. Navin always trusts the process. Feel free to contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @nzach3.

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