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Penn State Men’s Lacrosse With Strong Shot At National Championship

For perhaps the first time in program history, Penn State men’s lacrosse is the hunter instead of the hunted at the NCAA tournament.

The Nittany Lions are the No. 1 overall seed and odds-on favorite to win it all entering this year’s big dance. Jeff Tambroni’s squad will take on UMBC in the opening round at noon Sunday, May 12 at Panzer Stadium.

Led by star attackmen Mac O’Keefe and Grant Ament, Penn State’s offense is among the most dynamic in college lacrosse. Ament has already set the NCAA single-season record for assists with 78, and O’Keefe’s deadly shooting stroke sealed the program’s first Big Ten championship last weekend.

Penn State has been stuck in a bit of a tournament drought since its first trip in 2003. Although this is the team’s second NCAA tournament appearance in three seasons, it has yet to win a game despite four berths. This year might be the Nittany Lions’ best chance yet to exorcise some of those past NCAA demons.

Why Penn State Will Win A National Championship

From top to bottom, Penn State is probably the strongest team in this year’s 16-team field.

The Mac O’Keefes and Grant Aments of the world are great at putting the ball in the net, but the Nittany Lions would be nowhere near the top of the rankings without a deep, talented supporting cast of scorers. Opposing defenses are going to focus on Penn State’s star power, so players like Dylan Foulds, Jack Kelly, and Nick Spillane will need to produce in order for this team to go anywhere.

Foulds has potted 32 goals this year, which ranks second behind O’Keefe’s monstrous 60-goal output. Kelly isn’t far behind with 30 tallies of his own. Spillane is a senior with plenty of experience. He found the back of the net a career-high 24 times in 2019. TJ Malone has also been excellent in his freshman season with 29 goals in a supporting role (seven starts, 15 total appearances).

Other options like Jack Traynor (12 goals in 14 appearances off the bench) and Cole Willard (10 goals in 13 appearances off the bench) are also capable scorers who might be able to provide sparks when Penn State needs it most.

On defense, Big Ten defensive player of the year Chris Sabia has anchored the Nittany Lions’ back line. Despite its struggles against Johns Hopkins in the Big Ten title game when it conceded a season-high 17 goals, Penn State’s defense was very solid throughout the regular season. It held opposing attacks to 10 goals or fewer in seven games, including four of its six last outings. After conceding more than 10 goals in five consecutive games to start the year, the Nittany Lions clamped down and steadily improved — before the Big Ten title game, of course.

Goalkeeper Colby Kneese has also been solid in between the pipes. His 10.03 goals-against average is the best in the Big Ten and ranks 18th nationally, and he popped up with several big saves in his last outing against Johns Hopkins.

Gerard Arceri’s prowess in the faceoff X may be Penn State’s most important individual factor en route to a national title. He struggled against Johns Hopkins, but his .612 win rate on draws is still among the best in the nation. The Nittany Lions’ chances of winning dwindles as Arceri’s faceoff percentage does, but he’s clearly talented and capable enough of dominating the X.

Why Penn State Won’t Win A National Championship

Penn State men’s lacrosse is entering national title or bust territory, but a number of things could hamper its ability to win it all.

Slowing down the potent Nittany Lion offense isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s also not impossible. Johns Hopkins limited Mac O’Keefe to just two points (one goal, one assist) in its first meeting with Penn State during the regular season, and Ament was held to just two assists against Maryland on March 31.

However, other players popped up with huge goals to pick up the slack in both those games. Shutting down Penn State’s offense is unlikely at best, so keeping up with it might be opposing teams’ best option throughout this tournament.

Yale did exactly that in a 14-13 victory over Jeff Tambroni’s team early in the regular season, but nobody else was able to keep up while Penn State ran the table following that contest. A rematch between the Nittany Lions and Bulldogs would take place in the Final Four if both teams advance past the tournament’s first two rounds.

Penn State’s potential opponents in the second round are Loyola Maryland and Syracuse. With 57 goals this season, Loyola Maryland’s Kevin Lindley is right up there with O’Keefe as one of college lacrosse’s best scorers. Goalkeeper Jacob Stover allowed 9.80 goals per game while facing plenty of volume (14.27 saves per game, third in the nation). Meanwhile, Syracuse has the eighth-best defense in the nation after conceding 9.77 goals per contest this year. The Orange’s tough defense would make for a classic matchup between an unstoppable force against an immovable object.

The Nittany Lions will take on UMBC in the first round of the tournament after it beat Marist in a play-in game. Basketball and lacrosse are obviously different, but we all know the Retrievers are capable of knocking off a No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament play.

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About the Author

Mikey Mandarino

In the most upsetting turn of events, Mikey graduated from Penn State with a digital & print journalism degree in the spring of 2020. He covered Penn State football and served as an editor for Onward State from 2018 until his graduation. Mikey is from Bedminster, New Jersey, so naturally, he spends lots of time yelling about all the best things his home state has to offer. Mikey also loves to play golf, but he sucks at it because golf is really hard. If you, for some reason, feel compelled to see what Mikey has to say on the internet, follow him on Twitter @Mikey_Mandarino. You can also get in touch with Mikey via his big-boy email address: [email protected]

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