While Nick Aponte and his Penn State teammates try not to get caught up in the attention that comes with an undefeated start, they’re also embracing their new reality as one of the top men’s lacrosse teams in the country.
Aponte said the Nittany Lions look to limit the “noise” — like the team’s spot in the national rankings — after earning a hard-fought 9-8 victory over Fairfield on Friday at Penn State Lacrosse Field to clinch the best start in program history. The Nittany Lions, who improved their record to 8-0, survived the upset bid against the Stags in a game that reinforced the type of effort they can expect from opposing teams this season.
Fairfield (2-5) never backed down against Penn State, and the Stags’ sideline erupted after every goal by jumping up and shoving each other in celebration.
“It’s awesome to be the hunted,” Aponte said.
With the win, this year’s Nittany Lions replaced the 1992 team’s 7-0 start as the best in program history. Penn State is also among the nation’s best, as the Nittany Lions are ranked No. 1 in the US Lacrosse/Nike Poll, No. 2 in the USILA Coaches Poll and No. 3 by Inside Lacrosse. After going a combined 20-22 over the last three seasons and missing the NCAA tournament each time, Penn State is building the foundation toward establishing itself as an elite program.
“We’ve been here for four years,” said senior Mike Sutton, who scored the game-winning goal Friday. “And we’re all trying to make a statement here.”
Penn State coach Jeff Tambroni, who is in his seventh season at the helm, took the job after leading Cornell to three final fours and a national championship game appearance in 10 years.
Tambroni arrived in University Park thinking, “This could be one of the greatest places” to play college lacrosse, saying he saw that potential due to the combination of the school’s educational opportunities and its passionate fan base. There are few places like it, Tambroni said, and with hard work, he feels the Nittany Lions can make his vision a reality.
“I think at least the compass is pointed in that direction,” Tambroni said, “but I know we got a ton of work to put ourselves in the position to truly start to feel comfortable that it’s where we think it needs to be or should be.”
Aponte and his fellow seniors bought into their coach’s vision.
Those players now serve as the leader’s for this year’s team. And Tambroni feels leadership will determine whether or not Penn State makes the most of its historic start. The coach said his players need to maintain a “growth mindset,” looking to continue to improve and saving the reflection on their accomplishments for after the season.
“If our leadership truly believes that there is something that they can improve on every day, we’ll continue to get better,” Tambroni said. “If they don’t, we’re going to become complacent and be in a position to probably get beat by just about anybody.”
That was clear Friday against Fairfield.
On the field, the Stags jumped out to a 3-1 lead after the first quarter and led 8-7 in the fourth. On the sideline, the Stags celebrated every goal and defensive stop while constantly offering support for their teammates and trying to get under the skin of Penn State’s players.
Senior Christopher Giorgio served as the primary instigator.
He urged his teammates to keep the energy on the sideline, praised big plays by Fairfield and took aim at the Nittany Lions. Early in the second quarter, with Fairfield ahead 3-1, Giorgio shouted, “You can’t see missiles, buddy” to Penn State goalie Colby Kneese. After Fairfield took a 4-3 lead following a turnover by Mac O’Keefe, Giorgio let him know about it, yelling, “That’s on you, O’Keefe.”
Aponte said the Nittany Lions haven’t dealt with that much heckling this season, but he knows it comes with the territory.
“It’s a good feeling,” Aponte said, “because that means we’re doing something right to get to that spot where we want guys and other teams to just come at us with everything.”