February 18, 2013

Washburn: Tambroni Building Penn State Program

Redshirt senior Jack Forster had four goals Sunday against Denver, and meshed well with Shane Sturgis and freshman TJ Sanders on attack.
© Gray Quetti

Editor's note: Evan Washburn, the former Delaware defenseman and current CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network lacrosse commentator, will be providing a weekly column for LaxMagazine.com during the Division I men's lacrosse season. This is his first of 2013. He worked the sideline for NBC during Sunday's Penn State-Denver/Ohio State-Jacksonville doubleheader.

by Evan Washburn | LaxMagazine.com

When Jeff Tambroni left Cornell after the 2010 season after winning eight straight outright or co-Ivy League championships, many were surprised. But once reality had settled in that he was headed to Happy Valley, the next question was how quickly would success follow?

Year One brought the expected struggle of a new coaching regime, and a 7-7 record. Year Two saw massive improvements and a NCAA tournament snub, a situation that Tambroni said, while initially tough to swallow, showed the needle of the Penn State program was moving in the right direction.

This past weekend the Nittany Lions traveled to Jacksonville, Fla., to play Denver, a team ranked sixth in the preseason by Lacrosse Magazine, in an NFL stadium and on national television, two things never done by a Penn State team under Tambroni. The Lions dismantled the Denver defense, played with a feverish pace offensively and fought off runs by an always resilient Bill Tierney-coached team on the way to the 15-12 upset.

In sideline huddles, Tambroni utilizes a delicate balance of calmness and intensity. There were times Sunday when Denver, which has more talent, was ready to grab momentum.

But, strangely enough, Tambroni could count on one player he did not recruit; a player who has dealt with enormous change over his six years in State College. Redshirt senior attackman Jack Forster had four goals in the win.

The attack unit is indicative of the situation at Penn State, a mixture of the new and old guard. Forster and Shane Sturgis have been staples in the lineup for years, while Canadian freshman TJ Sanders represents the future. Forster, Sturgis and Sanders combined for 11 goals, making the Denver defense look lost.

The Nittany Lions have the recipe for success. The attack unit is dynamic, the midfield knows their role and Austin Kaut is arguably the best goalie in the nation. We may be able to answer the best goalie question when John Kemp and Notre Dame pay a visit to State College on Sunday.

Reading too much into results in mid-February is a mistake, but Penn State made a statement with Sunday's win.

The statement is that Tambroni is still one of the best coaches in the nation and is putting his stamp on this program. You don't believe me? Ask Tierney, who said in the days leading up to the game he still get the shakes when he sees Tambroni on the opposing sideline. The 43-year-old Tambroni now owns a 6-5 lead in all-time meetings against the legend, 17 years his senior.

When asked about past success, Tambroni highlights the grind and the journey. He doesn't bring up trips to the final four with Cornell, or Ivy League championships. The focus is always on the work and time that it took to get there, which is where he finds himself again now. You get the sense it is not coach speak. I have heard plenty of that.

Again, this is one win and the immediate future is daunting.

Penn State has as challenging a stretch as any team in the nation in late February and March. No. 3 Notre Dame, No. 19 Ohio State, No. 11 Lehigh and No. 5 Massachusetts are on the docket over the next four weeks. Simply put, we will know a lot more about this team in a month.

Penn State has all the factors necessary to be a consistent winner and tournament team. Most importantly, what we saw Sunday is a team that has bought in. It is not if Jeff Tambroni will find success at Penn State, it's how much.

From the booth

Like many Canadians before him, Ohio State's Logan Schuss has incredible stick skills and scoring ability. So who does he model his game after? Growing up in Ladner, British Columbia, Schuss watched highlights of John Grant Jr. At times you can see the similarities between the two attackmen in their size (Schuss listed at 6-foot, 210 pounds; Grant 6-foot-2, 225) and style, scoring goals from unheard angles. In a 9-6 win over Jacksonville on Sunday, Schuss had a pair of goals.

Schuss will get a chance to measure up against his role model July 6 when the MLL's Ohio Machine, which drafted Schuss 11th overall in January's collegiate draft, meet Grant's Chesapeake Bayhawks.

Stock up, stock down

A look at whose stock is rising and falling on the national scene:

Notre Dame, UP — Many thought the new rules would knock Notre Dame out of the elite conversation. Well, the Fighting Irish outshot Duke 37-29 on their way to a 13-5 win. Oh, by the way, the defense is still dominant.

UMass, UP — The fact that player of the year candidate Will Manny is dealing with a broken thumb is a glaring concern. This team rallied, showing they are not defined by one player and got a win over a talented UNC squad.

Penn State, UP — In Penn State's opener against Michigan, you saw a lot of bad shots and a disjointed offense. Within a week this team played a complete game on both ends of the field and controlled Denver from start to finish.

Duke, DOWN — When you watch the Blue Devils on tape they look like a ACC football team. Imposing athletes on offense and defense, that are still learning to play together. I learned a while ago, two losses in February means nothing to Duke.

Denver, DOWN — The offensive talent is there and this group feels more like a team than in years past. That being said, the Denver defense looked awful against Penn State, unable to guard on ball and they were exploited off ball. Also keep an eye on the health of All-American Chase Carraro, who went down with a right knee injury and did not return.

Syracuse, DOWN — Putting too much into early-season losses is a loser's game, but falling to Albany at home in the opener is a disappointment. For that reason alone more questions remain about the Orange this season.

Check back to LaxMagazine.com each Monday throughout the season for more columns from Evan, and follow him on Twitter @EvanWashburn.

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