Springing Into Step: PSU Lax Eyes National Tournament

Springing Into Step: PSU Lax Eyes National Tournament

The last time we checked in on the Penn State men’s lacrosse team in mid-February, hope was on the horizon as praised was lavished upon second-year head coach Jeff Tambroni. Well, it now appears well-deserved. On Saturday, State defeated Delaware by a 13-9 margin and improved its record to 8-5 overall for this 2012 season. With a league (Colonial Athletic Association) mark of 4-1, the Nittany Lions also captured the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament and will host one of the two semifinal games in nine days against the Drexel Dragons.

Steps were discussed here previously; it’s all about taking steps. The first and most important one occurred when Tambroni was hired to replace Glenn Thiel, who (thankfully and finally) retired two years ago. And now the time has come for the next step – gaining a berth in the NCAA championship tournament. For Penn State to move along the process of stepping onto the radar in the national collegiate lax scene, consistent appearances in the tourney must happen. It’s as simple as that. Really, you’re nobody if you don’t play meaningful games in May in this sport.

Because there are only 16 spots awarded annually and it’s a very short run to championship weekend, every tournament game is very intense from the very first faceoff. To get there, Penn State would receive an automatic bid with a CAA tournament victory, but an at-large bid is also possible. The previous sentence would have been laughable under the former coach of this program – that’s how far Tambroni has taken this group in only 24 months at the helm. The respect level inside the important circles (which are few and far between in this elitist sport) has improved significantly for PSU, which is now 13th-ranked nationally in college lacrosse’s official RPI.

A close loss in the CAA final could do the trick, but it’d be a very tough call for the seeding committee. Working in the Lions’ favor would be an overtime win at Notre Dame, which currently holds the No. 3 spot in the nation. Conversely, though, the selectors will also frown a bit on a 14-6 home loss to the University of Denver.

The margin for error here is very slim. The top seed in the league playoffs will be Massachusetts, which topped the Nits in overtime on March 17. Meanwhile, the team set to visit University Park next week in the CAA semis, Drexel, lost to State by only one goal.

Senior attackmen Jack Forster and Matt Mackrides along with sophomore  width=Shane Sturgis continue to be the strength of this squad offensively. In Saturday’s victory, Sturgis posted four goals and two assists while Mackrides netted a hat trick. Tom LaCrosse (yes, that’s his real last name) added three goals for State while netminder Austin Kaut looked shaky at times.

To date, Mackrides and Forster share the team lead in goals scored with 25 apiece; Sturgis has posted 15 goals and 24 points. At face value, State’s top-heavy goal scoring looks like it could be an issue when and if this team competes on the big stage because tournament games, as is the case in most playoffs in any sport, tend to be defensive, low-scoring battles. Nick Dolik and Gavin Ahern are the only two other Lions who’ve reached double-digits in goal scoring this season. But possessing five players with 10-plus goals is not at all a far cry from the same category among the elite teams in the nation; Virginia and Maryland have seven, Duke and Johns Hopkins both have six, while Syracuse is tied with State at five.

Even a loss in the first round of the NCAAs would be a win. At this point, it’s about getting there. The momentum shouldn’t stop, and with a head coach of Tambroni’s ilk and championship-level pedigree, it likely will not. He knows how to win; over the span of his last four seasons at Cornell prior to his arrival in Happy Valley, Tambroni guided his former squad to the Final Four three times, including one appearance in the national title game (2009).

 width=But first things first – State must win one week from Wednesday night. A home loss to Drexel in the CAA tourney would end any hopes of reaching the real tournament. And after Massachusetts sends either Towson or Hofstra (the opponent will be determined after regular season play concludes this weekend) packing, the PSU-UMass game will be set with the winner automatically qualifying and the loser still holding a shot for an at-large bid.