Unpacking Penn State Men’s Lacrosse’s Historic 2019 Season
Penn State men’s lacrosse just wrapped up its best season in program history, but it didn’t include a storybook ending.
The Nittany Lions had a strong grip on the nation’s No. 1 ranking for the majority of the 2019 season, which also featured many program firsts. Jeff Tambroni’s squad advanced beyond the first round of the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history after winning its first-ever Big Ten title with an 18-17 overtime victory against Johns Hopkins.
While the 21-17 defeat to Yale in the Final Four at Lincoln Financial Field may sting, Penn State took a tangible, huge first step towards becoming one of college lacrosse’s blue bloods in 2019.
They might say “defense wins championships,” but a high-flying attack propelled the Nittany Lions to a 16-2 record, Final Four appearance, and a mighty near-comeback that would’ve punched their ticket to the championship game.
Star attackmen Grant Ament and Mac O’Keefe led Penn State’s offense to the top of the national charts, and it wasn’t particularly close. Ament ran the show offensively with a national-best 96 assists and 126 points. The first team All-American and Big Ten offensive player of the year is one of five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award, which is college lacrosse’s Heisman Trophy equivalent.
Meanwhile, O’Keefe established himself as the best goal-scorer in college lacrosse. He led the nation with 78 goals — 17 more than second-placed Daniel Bucaro — and all of those were left-handed shots. His lack of right-handed goals might be concerning, but he was only held without multiple goals in a game once this season. The sharpshooter scored at least a hat trick in 15 of Penn State’s 18 games this year.
Penn State’s offense wouldn’t have been the best in the nation without its meaningful depth. Redshirt junior Dylan Foulds and sophomore Jack Kelly scored 43 and 42 goals, respectively, and freshman TJ Malone also chipped in 30 goals in 2019. If teams can find a way to shut down O’Keefe and Ament (Spoiler alert: They didn’t in 2019, and there’s no reason why that’ll change next year.), the Nittany Lions still have plenty of other options on offense.
The only key contributor Jeff Tambroni won’t return is Nick Spillane, who scored 27 goals and 26 assists from midfield in 2019. His departure will open the door for the likes of Jack Traynor (13 goals), Cole Willard (13 goals), and Dan Reaume (10 goals, six assists) to build on their solid contributions off the bench.
Those attackers helped Penn State lead the nation with 17.94 goals per game. With the exception of Spillane, they’ll all be back in Happy Valley next season.
Penn State’s defense wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it also wasn’t at the same elite standard as the offense.
Sure, matching the offense’s dizzying heights would be difficult for even the best back line in college lacrosse, but it’s a point of concern going into the 2020 season. Starting goalkeeper Colby Kneese will be back in Happy Valley, but team captain and reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year Chris Sabia is a senior.
Nick Cardile also started in all 18 games for the Nittany Lions this season, and he’ll be back for his final season of eligibility in 2020. Brayden Peck will also return, and TJ Connellan might be the most likely candidate to take on the third starting role on defense in 2020. However, Sabia’s leadership and presence will surely be missed.
Faceoff specialist Gerard Arceri might’ve struggled in the Final Four against Yale, but he’ll also return to the team next season. I expect Arceri to improve upon his strong 61 percent win rate in the X, especially with two games of valuable experience against Tewaaraton finalist TD Ierlan under his belt. Penn State’s ace on draws may have gone a combined 17-for-60 against Ierlan in his team’s two defeats against Yale, but those losses will serve as lessons and only help him moving forward.
Make no mistake about it: Penn State lacrosse’s championship window is wide open after a magical 2019 season.
This team was the best in the nation for most of the year, and it got over the hump against blue bloods like Maryland and Johns Hopkins en route to its first-ever Big Ten title. Many in the college lacrosse world expected Jeff Tambroni to take this program to dizzying heights when he left Cornell in 2011, and Happy Valley is now starting to see the fruits of his labor.
Fans love a winner, and the 2019 season went a long way in terms of fan support for the Nittany Lions. This season proved that Penn State’s championship window is wide open, and that’ll bring plenty of support from alumni and students to complement the team’s diehard fanbase. The strong support for the team, especially this weekend in Philly, also proved once again that Penn Staters will rally around anything.
I’ll wrap this up with a message to the rest of college lacrosse: Get ready, because the hunted has become the hunter.
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A quiet, but still lively campus made for the perfect stroll on a White Out Saturday night.
“Walking into the stadium an hour early and getting a seat two rows from the top of the student section made me realize how intense this was going to be.”
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