Penn State men’s lacrosse coach Jeff Tambroni admitted he’s never seen a stretch like this before — especially from a freshman.
Mac O’Keefe, a 19-year-old attacker, leads the NCAA in goals scored with 24 in four games, his first four games at the collegiate level.
For context, Penn State’s goals leader all of last season was Nick Aponte with 30 over 15 games. If O’Keefe keeps to his six goals per game average, he’ll tie Aponte’s 2016 mark when the No. 5 Nittany Lions host No. 8 Penn at noon Saturday.
So, it begs the question: How has O’Keefe taken the lacrosse world by storm?
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Tambroni said he’d be stretching the truth to say he predicted O’Keefe would be atop the nation’s scoring list — but the former national coach of the year always knew the potential was there.
“He has the skill and, as a freshman, it’s whether or not you have the confidence,” Tambroni said. “Do you have the poise to make those plays when the lights are on? At this point, Mac has answered the bell every single way.”
O’Keefe, who earned his fourth straight Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor after an eight-goal performance last weekend at Villanova, has humbly played down the hot start.
“I just have to do my thing and have fun with it,” O’Keefe said. “I can’t look too far into what people are saying or talking about, and just play my game.”
That game O’Keefe mentioned is multi-faceted, to say the least. Positioned on the goalie’s left side, the southpaw does everything a coach or teammate would want to see — release quickly, change the angle of his shot and keep goalies guessing.
O’Keefe has benefited from his surrounding attackers and a general anonymity to start the season, too.
Sophomore Grant Ament and Aponte, who is on the watch list for the Tewaaraton Award (lacrosse’s equivalent to the Heisman), complete a potent attack for the Nittany Lions. Aponte led Penn State in goals and points in 2016, and Ament had a team-high 34 assists in his own freshman campaign.
“The way the offense is set up, it’s interesting,” said lacrosse recruiting expert Geoff Shannon, the managing editor for InsideLacrosse.com. “I think early, defenses would go after the known objects, which allowed Mac to get favorable catch-and-shoot situations.”
But that’s not to take anything away from what O’Keefe has accomplished. Shannon, who has covered college lacrosse and recruiting for more than a decade, called O’Keefe’s contributions “pretty staggering” for a freshman and said his best quality was the ability to score from anywhere on the field.
Dating back to high school, that’s what really caught Tambroni’s eye.
It certainly wasn’t O’Keefe’s size. When he verbally committed to Penn State the summer going into his sophomore year of high school, the attacker was 5-foot-10, 160 pounds.
But a growth spurt in his junior year allowed him to put his talent to better use, garnering national attention along the way. Prior to his senior season, O’Keefe was among 250 players invited to U.S. Lacrosse’s U-19 preliminary tryout.
Over the course of a few more tryouts, O’Keefe kept making the cut and eventually landed on the 23-man, U-19 team that won gold at last summer’s FIL World Games in British Columbia. The attacker scored 11 goals in six games, impressing many, but especially one familiar face — U-19 assistant and Penn State associate head coach Peter Toner.
Toner, who coaches defense for the Nittany Lions, said seeing O’Keefe at the FIL World Games proved to him and Tambroni that the attacker could compete right away for Penn State.
“It was exciting to see,” Toner said. “He makes everyone around him better.”
That became more and more apparent as O’Keefe progressed through Penn State’s fall practices and scrimmages. In his first “start” for the Nittany Lions, a scrimmage against Towson, O’Keefe scored the game’s first goal and tossed a behind-the-back assist on the very next play.
Tambroni was convinced.
“To have the courage to throw that pass in your first start, and to have the ability to do it as well,” the coach said, “we saw a young man that was just starting to scratch the surface of what he could realize as his potential.”
And to a degree, that’s still the case. O’Keefe is the country’s most prolific goal-scorer, sure, but he has 10 regular-season games, including matchups with No. 1 Maryland and No. 3 Johns Hopkins, on the horizon this season.
Shannon and Toner believe O’Keefe can continue to thrive within the second-best offense in the nation.
“It’s been a testament to Tambroni’s recruiting over the past couple of years,” Shannon said. “With Mac, he rounds out what they’ve been building.”
Added Toner: “I couldn’t imagine being an opposing coach trying to gameplan for him. It’s hard to say, ‘Don’t let someone shoot.’”
Meanwhile, O’Keefe’s head coach just hopes the freshman doesn’t get wrapped up in hoopla of it all.
“He’s set such a high standard, you don’t want to put too much pressure on a young man,” Tambroni said. “I want him to enjoy it. ... The next step is to continue to have fun.”