October 14, 2013

30 in 30: Penn State Motivated to Make More Progress

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

First-team All-American goalie Austin Kaut and every other starter returns from a Penn State defense that ranked No. 2 in the nation in goals allowed per game last season.
© Kevin P. Tucker

This spring will mark the Penn State men's lacrosse program's 101st season, but for all its longevity, no team in its history has won a national post-season playoff game. That's right, it's been 0-for-100 until now, and more specifically 0-for-3 in NCAA tournament games, all of which have come within the last 10 seasons.

The streak includes the last game of last season, when the Nittany Lions bowed out in the first round of the 16-team tournament to Yale. It was the first NCAA playoff game Penn State had ever hosted in State College, Pa., and first appearance under coach Jeff Tambroni, now entering his fourth season as the Nittany Lions' head coach.

Every player in the program now has been coached for his entire Penn State career by Tambroni and his staff, albeit the current rookies have only worked under them this fall. But this team has been created in the mold the staff has cast. Bit by bit, they've crawled into consistent NCAA tournament contention; after an inaugural 7-7 season of transition in Happy Valley in 2011, Penn State was a bubble out team in 2012 and an at-large, eighth seed in 2013. There's now a spoken desire to take it a step further.

Of course, it won't be easy, in more ways than one. First, there are the games on the field, and second, each of those games will be exponentially more important after the Colonial Athletic Association banned Penn State from the conference post-season because of their impending move to the new Big Ten conference in spring 2015. (Conference moves are subject to penalty according to CAA bylaws, although Penn State is the first associate member to be banned.)

The Lions won't have a shot at the NCAA tournament automatic qualifying berth that goes to the CAA champ. So much like last year, when Towson upset Penn State in the CAA semifinals in State College, the Lions will have to wait until Selection Sunday to know if they'll play into May. Assuming they are in playoff picture again.

"It's disappointing," Tambroni said Sunday at The Landon School in Bethesda, Md., after Penn State played Lehigh and Bucknell at the second annual Capital Lacrosse Invitational benefitting the Mario St. George Boiardi Foundation. "Hopefully motivation is a part of what [comes from it], but at the end of the day [we] should be motivated to play everybody, and play to win, and play to make the playoffs, and play to win a playoff game. It's not something we've ever done. I don't think we needed it, but it's just a disappointing outcome."

On Sunday on an overcast day outside Washington, D.C., Penn State fell to Lehigh 10-9 after leading 6-0 midway through the second quarter. The Lions won their second scrimmage, 12-11, against Bucknell, the second of two Pennsylvania foes on the day. In each, Penn State showed glimpses of what to expect come spring.

The defense, coordinated by assistant Peter Toner, is the team's strength. Every starter returns from last year's group that ranked No. 2 in the nation in goals allowed per game (7.59). First-team All-American goalie Austin Kaut is back for a senior season as are defensemen Stephen Bogert and Tyler Travis, both first-team All-CAA picks in 2013, and junior JP Burnside, who started all 17 games at close last year. More returning regular starters: defenseman Jack Donnelly, short-stick defensive midfielder Michael Richards, CAA all-rookie pick long-stick James Burke and senior Kessler Brown.

"Earlier in their careers, in the face of fire, if something happened it would lead to the domino effect of bad getting worse," Tambroni said. "Now for the most part, when things go awry, they clean things up quickly and have the maturity and confidence to move on."

Penn State's attack has some nice pieces. Shane Sturgis (27 goals, 17 assists in 2013) led the team in points as a freshman, was third as a sophomore and third again last season behind sixth-year senior Jack Forster and freshman T.J. Sanders. Sanders is a skilled Canadian scorer (44 goals and five assists last year), and was paired with Sturgis and big, 6-foot-1, 220-pound senior Gavin Ahern against Lehigh on Sunday.

Sturgis scored three goals with one assist, Ahern had two goals and one assist and Sanders had one goal against the Mountain Hawks. At some point, Sturgis was checked hard on his left hand. He iced it and sat out against Bucknell as a precautionary measure. In his absence, Sanders scored five goals against the Bison from a variety of locations. Junior Pat Manley, who saw time in 10 games last season, has been playing attack and midfield.

If you're looking for another Canadian scorer to keep an eye on the next four years, look no further than freshman attackman Dan Craig, who scored two goals against Lehigh on his first two collegiate shots. He left the game shortly thereafter after rolling his right ankle. "We think he's going to be very good," Tambroni said. Craig played on a line with Sturgis for his first goal.

There's a question mark on faceoffs and that area of concern couldn't be fully evaluated Sunday. Redshirt freshman faceoff man Drake Kreinz, who started against Lehigh, suffered a concussion and didn't play past the second quarter. Senior Ryne Sternberg (0-for-6 on draws in 2013) took almost all of the remaining faceoffs against Lehigh and Bucknell, with sophomore long-pole James Burke spelling Sternberg occasionally. Cole Yeager, a fifth-year senior transfer from Yale, didn't play Sunday because of injury. Danny Henneghan, now graduated, took all but 10 faceoffs for the Lions last year.

Penn State's weakness last season was midfield depth, Tambroni said, and that unit is still a work-in-progress. Senior co-captain Tom LaCrosse is the most productive returning midfielder, with 23 goals and five assists, but no other midfielder tallied more than 15 points a season ago. Manley and freshman Nick Aponte ran with LaCrosse against Lehigh. The second midfield was comprised mainly of sophomore Sammy Davis and juniors Erik Myers and Kyle Zittel.

"We need more depth," Tambroni said. "We have a lot of guys who are solid. We don't have enough guys that are just making plays at a consistent level."

Penn State went 12-5 last season, showing marked improvement from a year prior. After starting 2-3, with a pair of overtime losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State and a two-goal loss to Lehigh, the Lions won 10 in a row. They went unbeaten in the CAA regular season. But the year ended with a bitter taste, with back-to-back losses to Towson and Yale in the CAA and NCAA postseasons, respectively.

"It's the same approach we tried to instill in Year One," Tambroni said of the approach this fall compared to 2010 after he arrived following 10 seasons (and three final four appearances in four years) as Cornell coach. "Change the culture a little bit, both on the field and off the field. It continues to move in a positive direction. We're not nearly where we'd like to be. We're not at that place where all of a sudden, you'll start changing gears and say we need to play faster, or have more fun. This has been a process.

"This is the first time that everyone on our team has played for this coaching staff," he said. "The seniors were here when they were freshmen. It's been a nice progression. They're starting to lead our vision. That's made a huge difference to our coaching staff. It's not always, wait to find out what the coaches say and figure out what we need to do. The captains [Ahern, LaCrosse and Travis] and seniors have led a lot of what we've done. We've just tried to continuously build the team we want to be on the field and off the field."

Canada State

When Tambroni took over for longtime coach Glenn Thiel after the 2010 season, Penn State had zero Canadians on the roster. With the trend of top-notch NCAA scorers hailing from Canada, Penn State, like many other programs, has made an effort to recruit there. But not all are offensive-minded. Four on the current roster hail from north of the border: Sanders, defenseman Donnelly, faceoff guy Sternberg and the aforementioned freshman Craig.

Waiting in the wings

Penn State fans are happy they have one more year of Austin Kaut in goal. As for who's next in line for the Lions between the pipes? It looks like redshirt freshman Connor Darcey. The Wellesley, Mass., product played in the second half against both Lehigh and Bucknell and showed nice ball-stopping ability and outlet passing.

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