For the first time in its nearly 100-plus years of existence, Penn State men’s lacrosse is participating in the sport’s Championship Weekend (aka “The Final Four”). As I’ve probably stated on here countless times already, none of us on the BSD staff are well-versed in the sport, which prevents us from being able to do more than just give you a basic run-down on what happened in a game (“Mac O’Keefe scored a lot of goals today, and Grant Ament assisted on all 50 of them!”)
Luckily, the mothership has its very own blog dedicated to college lacrosse, aptly named College Crosse. Their co-managers Chris Jastrzembski and Safe Fekadu were kind enough to answer some pressing questions we had regarding Penn State’s historically successful season, how the rest of the Final Four field shapes up, and their thoughts on the chances that the Nittany Lions will bring home the whole enchilada.
As you will see from Chris and Safe’s responses below, the two both have quite a bit to say, so perhaps this Q&A may be something you want to read while you’re sitting on the john, or doing some other activity where you’ll be sitting around for a bit, and need some reading material.
Needless to say, this incredible season for Penn State seemingly came out of nowhere (except perhaps those within the program who saw the team’s potential). How important is it for college lacrosse that teams like PSU begin to emerge as legit national title hopefuls? Is this is a program set up for long-term success?
Chris: It’s very important for a team like Penn State to finally emerge. It really helps the Big Ten as well. There’s been a lot of parity for the past few seasons, and it’s much harder to make a final four run now than it was 10 years ago. The blue blood programs such as Syracuse and Johns Hopkins have made one Championship Weekend appearance this decade. In the last five years, teams like Denver, Brown, Ohio State, Towson, Albany, and even Yale have made appearances in Championship Weekend.
What Penn State making Championship Weekend means for other programs is that it’s possible for anyone to do. Same thing when Ohio State made the championship game in 2017. It might open up more eyes of AD’s to think about adding or finding a way to add men’s lacrosse.
Safe: Penn State wasn’t that far off from making the NCAA Tournament in 2018. The Nittany Lions lost three games in non-conference play by a total of 5 points to teams that ended up making the dance and in each of those games PSU had a lead well into the fourth quarter but wasn’t able to hold on for the win. They rebounded enough in conference play that they were on the cusp of making the Big Ten Tournament and having a chance to win the automatic qualifier, but their loss to Michigan the last game of their 2018 regular season doomed those chances.
After 2018 ended, you could see Penn State being a potential NCAA Tournament team in 2019 and even a Final Four sleeper, especially with the return of Grant Ament, but you’re certainly right, I don’t think anyone outside of the Penn State men’s lacrosse team & immediate family could’ve predicted this once in a generation type of season from the Nittany Lions.
I am always a fan of growing the game across the country, but I also believe there’s plenty of growth needed right here in the Mid-Atlantic region. Lacrosse wasn’t even available in my area 12-15 years ago and while it has grown rapidly in popularity, it still doesn’t come close to basketball, baseball, soccer, & football in terms of social cache. However, I think a successful Penn State program can help increase the popularity of the sport in this area with the casual fan since the school has such a large presence in the region.
I grew up in South Jersey and lived in Philly for a long time, and Penn State is omnipresent around New Jersey & Eastern PA. It’s one of the most recognizable schools on the east coast with a massive, active alumni community up and down the NYC-DC corridor. Having any big time, non-blue blood school get to the Final Four is good for the game. However, having Penn State be that team and the Final Four being at Lincoln Financial Field is a potent combination that could have a large impact on growing the popularity of the sport in this region and across the country.
I think Penn State has the qualities needed to not be a one-hit wonder. First and foremost, they have a great coaching staff. I think head coach Jeff Tambroni has done a wonderful job taking a dormant but potentially great program and turning it into what it is today. Additionally, there’s so much talent on the roster coming back next year, that it is tough to see them not being a major factor in 2020. You couple everything they have right now with the support they get from the administration/alumni community, plus a brand new lacrosse-only facility like Panzer Stadium, and it is easy to see that Penn State has the features necessary to be a long term power.
In the end, it’s tough to predict future success, but I can certainly see them being in the conversation for a national title over the next two or three seasons and beyond.
Besides the emergence of Grant Ament and Mac O’Keefe as a “shake-n-bake” combo, what has helped fuel PSU’s successful season?
Chris: Ament and O’Keefe have been huge for Penn State’s success. But let’s not forget about Dylan Foulds, the third attackman as well. He’s having a great year and those three have been leaders on an off the field in terms of game prep and taking care of themselves off the field.
Up top at midfield, Jack Kelly has emerged as a big threat and had a career-high six goals against UMBC in the first round and four tallies in the Loyola game on Sunday. TJ Malone is an impact freshman that has also played at attack at times. The offensive depth continues with Nick Spillane, Jack Traynor, Dan Reaume, and Cole Willard.
The defense is also experienced led by Chris Sabia, Nick Cardile, Brayden Peck, and goalie Colby Kneese. It also helps that Gerard Arceri is one of the top five faceoff men in the country as well.
Safe: Penn State’s shooting has been phenomenal this season and it’s been a big reason why they are so good this year. The Nittany Lions shot 34% in 2018, which would’ve been good enough for fourth in the country this season in shooting percentage. However, they are shooting 43% in 2019, which is kind of unheard of in college lacrosse.
Indeed, of the nine Penn State players with 20+ shots on the season, eight of them are shooting higher than 40%. Penn State’s accuracy is what’s fueled this historic offense and they’ve shown that they don’t need 45 shots to get 13 goals like most teams, they can do plenty of damage with only 30-35 shots.
Yale is the only team to have handed PSU a loss this season. How were they able to emerge victorious in the initial meeting, and what does PSU need to do differently if they want to exact revenge in the Final Four?
Chris: It was a very offensive battle, I was actually there to watch that game. Ament put on a show against Yale’s Chris Fake, and Mac O’Keefe had yet another good day on offense. But the big x-factor came at the faceoff X. TD Ierlan lost only six faceoffs, four of them to Arceri. If Ierlan was not there, I guarantee you Penn State would win that game. So, the obvious thing that needs to happen for Penn State to win is to win more faceoffs. That will be tough against the best faceoff man in the country. So instead, the focus goes to the defense to stop Yale and the second highest scoring offense in the NCAA. Jackson Morrill is a high-IQ player and Matt Brandau is one of the best freshmen in the country. I don’t think the Penn State offense will have a problem, especially if Yale gave up 18 to Penn on Sunday.
Safe: It’s hard to point to one thing and say if that was different, Penn State would’ve definitely beaten Yale back in February. Nevertheless, it is really difficult to ignore the fact that the Nittany Lions lost the face-off battle 25 to 6 when they lost 14-13 to the Bulldogs in New Haven earlier this year. Given how prolific this [Penn State] offense is, I find it hard to imagine that Penn State wouldn’t have potentially scored 2 or more goals if they had just gotten the ball a little more that day. Despite the face-off deficit, the Nittany Lions still scored 13 goals on 34 total shots and 20 shots on goal (38% and 65% shooting, respectively) and almost stole that game, in the end. I am not saying Penn State would have definitely won if they had lost the face-off battle 20-11 instead of 25-6, but I am comfortable saying that Penn State probably would’ve found at least one more goal versus Yale if you had given them five more possessions that game.
However, as we always say at College Crosse, there are no moral victories in lacrosse. At the end of the day, Yale won that game fair and square, and denying Penn State’s offense the ball by dominating the face-off is probably one of the few ways you can beat the Nittany Lions. Unfortunately for PSU, Yale has one of the greatest face-off players in the history of the game, plus an extremely talented team overall. But, if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best and Yale certainly fits that description, given that they are the defending champs with some of the best players in the country.
Gerard Arceri doesn’t have to get over 50% versus TD Irelan for Penn State to be competitive on Saturday, he just needs to make sure Irelan doesn’t hit 80% like last time. The more Arceri can feed this offense the ball, the more likely Penn State is going to win the game.
Should PSU beat Yale on Saturday, which team do you feel would pose a more favorable matchup in the championship game: Duke or Virginia?
Chris: They’re two different teams: Duke is more defensive (which is obvious because the other three teams in the field are high on offense) but with two studs in JT Giles-Harris and Cade Van Raaphorst, they might cause trouble for Penn State’s 1-2 punch. Virginia might look like a more favorable opponent, but they look very identical to Penn State. Similar goalies, two very good faceoff men, talented offenses, good defenses.
The only thing Virginia has on Penn State is their ride. They’re unofficially the top riding team in the country per Virginia’s SID Vincent Briedis. They can and will cause trouble when defenses try to clear. I would pick Virginia, but not by a lot.
Safe: I think Duke poses a better match-up for Penn State. Duke is a very formidable team, but there is something very dangerous about this Virginia squad and the way they have been able to consistently pull through in tight games. Duke should beat Virginia, like they have the last 19 of 20 times the two have met since since 2005. However, if the Cavs can beat Duke on Saturday, then all bets are off because we might be dealing with forces beyond even Penn State’s control.
In the end, every team in the Final Four is a great squad, but UVA’s cool under pressure and knack for scoring in unsettled situations is not something you can really scheme against. Maryland played a very solid game last week, won almost all of the 6 vs. 6 situations, and yet, they only had a one-goal halftime lead versus UVA, and couldn’t stop the Cavs when they got rolling in the fourth quarter.
Duke will be an enormous challenge if Penn State ends up playing them on Monday, but Virginia is less conventional than the Blue Devils, and that comes with its own set of risks. Also, UVA’s face-off winning percentage is 16th in the country and right behind Penn State (15th), while Duke is 31st. One way to defeat Penn State is to deny them the ball via the face-off, and if I am a Penn State fan I’d definitely prefer going up against a team that doesn’t have one of the better face-off units in the country.
One other thing working against Penn State, regardless of opponent, is the fact that they are playing the late game on Saturday. Teams that play the second game usually have a bit of a slow start in the title game on Memorial Day, as they have less time to recuperate from their Final Four match-up. So, that is definitely something to be concerned about irrespective of opponent if Penn State is fortunate enough to defeat Yale on Saturday.
Last, but not least: Give us your predictions on how the Final Four and championship games will play out.
Chris: I think both games are going to be high-scoring. I think Penn State gets their revenge on Yale and Virginia gets the 800-pound gorilla off their back in beating Duke (UVA has only beaten Duke once, this decade). In the end, I think a Penn State-Virginia matchup would be insane: A ton of goals. A ton of action. It’s so tough to decide on this, but I think Virginia just prevails in the end in overtime.
Safe: I think Penn State will beat Duke on Memorial Day Monday.