April 23, 2014

Lambrecht: Penn State Undone by CAA Postseason Ban

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Lambrecht Archive

Penn State coach Jeff Tambroni said talk of March must-win games filtered into the locker room and "guys were playing too tight at times, putting too much emphasis on one game," he said. (Rich Barnes)

As its disappointing season most likely draws to a close on Saturday against Hofstra, the unranked Penn State Nittany Lions (6-6) are not making excuses for their plight. Yet, especially for a senior class that has helped to transform the program under fourth-year coach Jeff Tambroni, the 2014 season never smelled right.

From the day that Colonial Athletic Association Commissioner Tom Yeager announced — as punishment for its planned move in 2015 to its natural home in the Big Ten — Penn State would be banned from the CAA tournament and lose a chance at an automatic qualifier for the NCAA tournament, the Lions were put on a hot seat they did not deserve.

Why the Lions, who last year won 12 games, took the CAA regular-season title and made the NCAA tournament as an at-large entry, have played some uncharacteristically bad lacrosse this year is up for speculation. Why Penn State, a preseason top 10 team, lost five of six games between March 10 and April 3, a tailspin that effectively ruined its season, is in some ways a mystery to the Lions.

But senior Austin Kaut, last year's first-team All-America goalie, admitted the extra pressure to win big games, avoid bad losses and thus gain an at-large bid caught up with Penn State. He admitted that by putting so much value on early-season confrontations with top 20 and top 10 teams, knowing there would be no chance for redemption in a conference tournament setting, the Lions played with tension at times that was self-defeating.

"I'd be lying if I said [the CAA tournament ban] didn't affect us during the season," Kaut said. "It makes you grip the stick a little tighter. It makes you double-guess decisions. We let the moment take us over, instead of taking over the moment. We just didn't make the plays we needed to make."

March Madness took on a different meaning for this team. Penn State went 2-4 last month, including damaging losses to CAA rival UMass, Albany and Villanova, before the Lions dropped a gut-wrenching, triple-overtime, 13-12 decision at league rival Drexel on April 3.

"It was obvious to me that those guys were putting a lot of pressure on themselves," said Albany coach Scott Marr, whose Great Danes came to Penn State and left town with a 17-10 rout on March 22.

"Every time they made a mistake, guys were dropping their heads like it was the end of the world. I don't like the decision [the CAA made]. I thought it was vindictive and in no way was in the interest of the kids, who didn't do anything wrong."

Sure, bylaws are bylaws. The kids in this case are the collateral damage. The CAA merely exercised its rights to stick it to Penn State for resigning its CAA membership to move into a new home, which happens to be the same house the Nittany Lions have played the rest of their sports in for more than two decades.

The CAA's by-the-book enforcement of the rules doesn't remove the stink from its decision. Since joining the league in 2009, Penn State has received no payouts from the CAA. Even Yeager said he thought this marked the first time an associate member of the league was banned from postseason play after announcing its imminent departure.

If there ever was a time to make a decision in "the spirit of the rules," this was it. Penn State is not some vagabond in search of greener pastures. It's part of the Big Ten, one of the richest leagues in the NCAA, with its own sports network. Besides benefitting their own, maturing lacrosse program, the Lions were also helping the CAA by being part of the league.

"I don't want to say [the ban] is unfair, because it's within the guidelines of what we signed up for [in 2009]. But it doesn't really make a whole lot of sense. Schools [changing conferences next year] like Rutgers and Maryland aren't dealing with any sanctions, but we are," Tambroni said.

"I'd be lying if I said [the CAA tournament ban] didn't affect us during the season. It makes you grip the stick a little tighter."

— Penn State senior goalie Austin Kaut

"It wasn't like we had a choice in this. The Big Ten chose to create a lacrosse conference, and we're in it. Nothing changes the fact that we compete in the NCAA and we're supposed to be looking out for the kids' interests. That had nothing to do with the way this whole thing went down."

Tambroni also took the blame for the way the year unfolded, acknowledging that the unique dynamics of 2014 intruded on Penn State's management of the season. After losing in week two to current, No. 1 Loyola, the Lions were crushed. They lifted their spirits with wins at Notre Dame and Ohio State. Then came a must-win opportunity at Denver on March 10 that slipped away with a 15-11 loss.

"We allowed that stuff to filter into our locker room. Guys were playing too tight at times, putting too much emphasis on one game," he said.

"We felt like we needed to win two of those [games involving Loyola, Notre Dame and Denver]. On March 10, we're thinking what's left on our schedule to produce that signature win? Guys were mentally and physically spent from that. Those are unintended consequences that the head coach didn't plan on."

All the Lions can do is finish on a good note. Penn State snapped out of its losing slide with an 8-1 road smack-down at Towson on April 12 and beat Delaware on Saturday to get to 2-2 in league play. This is Penn State's first, two-game winning streak in seven weeks.

All Penn State can do is finish with its only three-game winning streak — and a meaningless, third-place finish in the CAA — by beating No. 10 Hofstra on Saturday. The first-place Pride (10-3, 4-0) is one of the hottest teams in the country, having won 10 of its last 11 games.

"We're just enjoying the days we have left together, just giving one hundred percent every day," Kaut said. "Our mission as seniors was to leave this program better than we found it. We've done that."

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