Two straight wins over top-10 teams to start Big Ten play have put the lacrosse world on notice.
Penn State is taking no prisoners and is the clear national championship favorite as the postseason and the push to Memorial Day weekend starts to come into view. No one in the lacrosse world is questioning them after the last 120 minutes of play, the Nittany Lions have just been too dominant so far this season and don’t have a bad performance on their resume.
It is hard to believe it wasn’t the case following the convincing win over Maryland a week ago, but the Nittany Lions are now the unanimous No. 1 team in the country in the Inside Lacrosse Media Day Poll coming off of back-to-back wins over the Terrapins and Ohio State.
They are led on offense by the national leader in assists per games Grant Ament, and the co-national leader in goals per game Mac O’Keefe -- a devastating one-two punch that has the team leading the nation in goals per game. At the face-off X All-American candidate Gerard Arceri gives the Nittany Lions a comfortable possession advantage most weeks.
On defense junior goalie and third-year starter Colby Kneese has grown out of the up and down play that plagued his first two seasons of the cage, becoming a consistent difference maker. In front of him Chris Sabia leads a defense that has taken a big step forward in 2019.
Historically, the men’s lacrosse team is nowhere near the most successful program on campus. But nine years ago Penn State made an investment into lacrosse to change the trajectory of the program. The Nittany Lions went out and hired one of the most respected coaches in the country, Jeff Tambroni, who led Cornell to three final fours, to be their head coach.
Progress has been easy to see for anyone that follows the program, but that elusive breakthrough year has remained stubbornly out of reach. The 2017 team looked to be the one, climbing all the way up to being No. 1 in the country. Ultimately, however, they had some flaws exposed in Big Ten play and fell flat in the first round of the tournament against Towson in May, getting upset on their own field.
A week before the 2018 preseason started I sat down with Ament, O’Keefe and Arceri for a long preseason interview on a variety of topics and it really felt like it was going to be their breakthrough year. But then Ament’s season ended from a preseason injury, other health concerns plagued the team, some close games slipped away and suddenly the offseason was staring them in the faces after a clear step back. This spring, in their beautiful brand new stadium, the Nittany Lions have found another gear and are the elite team that some thought they could become last season.
With three regular season games left coming against desperate teams a huge target is going to be on the Nittany Lions’ backs this weekend against Michigan in Ann Arbor before closing out the season at home against Johns Hopkins and Rutgers.
This group has the firepower to make history by getting the program’s first NCAA Tournament win and then push all the way to Memorial Day weekend for the Final Four. That trip would put them in front of a super partisan crowd at Lincoln Financial Field.
Staying focused and keeping the same internal drive appears to be all they’ll need with the talent they have to make a postseason run and avoid a late season stumble or suffer a disappointing first-round exit.