The Penn State men’s and women’s lacrosse teams are looking to make some history this weekend.
Penn State is one of just three campuses in the nation to be hosting both men’s and women’s NCAA Division I games this weekend, a reward for a pair of spectacular seasons.
“It’s great for our school, it’s great for our program,” senior captain Nick Aponte said. “I know the girls have had pretty good success the past couple years, and we’ve kind of been falling short. ... We have everything coming to Penn State.”
Action at the Penn State Lacrosse Field starts at 6 p.m. Friday when Louisville and James Madison meet in a first-round women’s contest. The men take over the field at noon Saturday with No. 7 Penn State (12-3) hosting Towson (10-4). The No. 4-seed Nittany Lion women (15-3) finally get their spot on the field at 1 p.m. Sunday, hosting the winner between the Cardinals and Dukes.
“We’re all really antsy to play,” said senior attacker Steph Lazo, the Big Ten’s Attacker of the Year. “We all can’t wait to get out here. We love playing here.”
PSU men vs. Towson
The Nittany Lions had an incredible start to the season, winning their first 10 games and rising to No. 1 in the national polls — both program firsts. However, the team lost two straight, albeit to fellow tournament teams in No. 1 Maryland and No. 6 Johns Hopkins, then lost again to the Terrapins in the Big Ten semifinals.
Coach Jeff Tambroni and his staff have addressed the slide with their team.
“We talked a lot about that in the middle of the season,” Tambroni said. “Just learning from that experience and keeping our focus right here from sideline to sideline, endline to endline. Not worrying so much about what was going on outside the field.”
Aponte called the polls “noise” and pointed out the only one that really matters is the one that comes out at the end of May, after the tournament is over.
But the experience of rising to a surprise No. 1, then faltering, was much like the men’s hockey team this past season, and Tambroni said he consulted with coach Guy Gadowsky about how they recovered in time to make the NCAA tournament.
“It was a valuable experience for me,” Tambroni said of the conversation.
There is a bit of familiarity with Saturday’s combatants. Penn State used to be a member of the Colonial Athletic Association with the Tigers before the formation of Big Ten lacrosse three years ago. The teams also met last fall in a scrimmage.
However, while Towson is making its third straight tournament appearance, the Nittany Lions are in their first NCAA game since 2013. They are glad to have the chance to still be playing but know they have a special team this season led by 50-point-scorers Grant Ament (27 goals, 29 assists), Aponte (22 goals, 33 assists) and freshman Mac O’Keefe (48 goals, 5 assists).
“We have to be grateful we have this opportunity,” Aponte said. “There are a lot of teams that are just done. They’re going home for the summer. Their seniors are never going to play again at the college level.”
PSU women vs. Louisville or JMU
Penn State savored the success of last season, running all the way to the NCAA semifinals, and for much of this season was matching the men’s team win-for-win. The Nittany Lions hope they can take the lessons from the 2016 success and turn it into another long march.
“It definitely (plays) into what we want to do,” Lazo said. “The upperclassmen, we’ve been there before, and all the experiences we’ve been telling the underclassmen, I think we’re all on board and we all want to get back there.”
Also like the men, they faltered near the end of the season and had a disappointing, lightning-interrupted, marathon loss to Northwestern in the Big Ten tournament. There was much to learn just from that game, so they were not concerned early in the week about discovering Sunday’s opponent on Friday.
“After the Big Ten tournament, we have a lot of things we need to work on as a team regardless of who we’re going to play,” said coach Missy Doherty, whose program will make its 23rd tournament appearance. “That’s how the NCAA tournament works. You never know from game to game who it’s going to be.”
Doherty’s team opened the season winning 12 of the first 13, following the lead of its three-headed scoring monster. Lazo led with 43 goals and 39 assists, Madison Carter netted 60 goals and nine assists, and Katie O’Donnell had 54 goals and six assists.
“Yeah, we did have a great regular season,” O’Donnell said. “Our record is basically 0-0, and none of that really matters.”