Senior attacker Nick Aponte and his teammates are aiming to stake their claim as the best Penn State men’s lacrosse team ever.
They made history during the regular season, winning their first 10 games — the best start in program history — and rising to No. 1 in the country for the first time ever in every major poll. And, now, they’re looking to earn the program’s first-ever Big Ten tournament win — and set the school record for most wins in a season — when the postseason begins Thursday.
To achieve those feats and add to their list of accomplishments, the No. 4-seed Nittany Lions will need to beat top-seeded Maryland, the team that ended Penn State’s perfect start this season. The Terrapins won the regular-season conference championship and are currently ranked No. 1 in the country by Inside Lacrosse.
Penn State (12-2) will take on Maryland (10-3) at 5 p.m. Thursday in Columbus, Ohio, with a spot in Saturday’s Big Ten championship game on the line.
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“These guys are excited to leave a legacy that has not been left yet,” Penn State coach Jeff Tambroni said Tuesday, noting the importance of winning a Big Ten tournament game and title. “I think the hunger is right there.”
In their first two Big Ten tournaments, the Nittany Lions suffered losses in the semifinals to Johns Hopkins (2015) and Maryland (2016). Both losses marked the end of their seasons as Penn State missed the NCAA tournament.
This season, the Nittany Lions proved to be one of the nation’s top teams with 10 straight wins before falling 15-11 to Maryland on April 8. Penn State midfielder Dan Craig said Maryland owned the possession battle in the first matchup — when the Terrapins won 20 of 30 faceoffs and held a 34-16 advantage on ground balls. Craig knows his team needs a better effort in that area, and he’s not the only one.
Aponte said the Nittany Lions must start stronger after falling behind 4-1 early in the first matchup.
“We felt we started off on our heels last time we played them, and Maryland got off to a three- or four-goal lead,” Aponte said. “So we just kind of felt like we were always behind, playing catch-up the whole game. We just want to come out of the gates flying.”
Tambroni expects his team to play with a sense of urgency Thursday.
The coach said his team took a relaxed approach all year, trying not to put too much pressure on results. But with the postseason starting, a rematch with Maryland and a chance to win a conference tournament game, Tambroni said it’s easy for his team to find motivation going into Thursday.
“I think you tend to have a little bit of a fire in your belly and you want revenge to a certain degree,” Tambroni said. “You want to go out and prove to yourself that you belong with those games against some of the nation’s best teams.”
Aponte helped fuel Penn State’s fifth-ranked offense (14.21 goals per game), and he’s ready to lead the Nittany Lions into the postseason. He said the seniors will be “jacked up” and added he hopes the rest of the team follows them.
“We put in a lot of effort just to get to the point that we’re at right now, so we don’t want to let it just slide by,” Aponte said. “We only have one more opportunity left.”
Penn State will then turn its focus to the NCAA tournament and the ultimate goal.
“We want to get to the NCAA championship,” Craig said