Penn State lacrosse coach Jeff Tambroni discusses ‘evolution’ of team
Fifteen minutes after recording the first NCAA tournament win in program history, and the smiles had already faded from the Penn State men’s lacrosse team.
The No. 1 Nittany Lions, who never before made it out of the first round, thumped the UMBC Retrievers 25-10 in the opening round of the NCAA tournament Sunday at Panzer Stadium. But, history-making or not, these Nittany Lions weren’t satisfied.
“Monkey’s off our backs now,” attacker Grant Ament shouted to his teammates while jogging off the field. “Let’s get to work.”
Penn State (15-1) was supposed to be a great team this preseason, a borderline top-10 squad with a shot at the tournament. But as the season wore on, they’ve transformed from one of the nation’s best to the best. Happy Valley’s lacrosse team has gone from making an NCAA tournament every few years to being just two wins from the national championship game. The Big Ten champs have gone from also-rans to favorites.
Penn State, the consensus No. 1 team in the country, will face No. 8 Loyola Maryland at either noon or 2:30 p.m. May 19 in the quarterfinals at UConn’s Rentschler Field. Win or lose, this is already the furthest the lacrosse team has ever gotten.
But to midfielder Jack Kelly, who didn’t so much as crack a grin during the postgame press conference, this is only the beginning.
“Obviously it was huge for us to get the first program win, good for our history and everything,” said the sophomore, who scored six goals and set a career high in scoring with seven minutes left in the first half. “But we have bigger goals. So it’s kind of back to business.”
This has been a season of record-setting performances and unprecedented success. And Sunday was no different — even if it wasn’t followed up by a Gatorade bath for coach Jeff Tambroni.
Mac O’Keefe broke the Big Ten single-season scoring record Sunday with his 66th goal by scoring six more against UMBC. Grant Ament also increased his single-season NCAA assists record with five more to give him 83 on the season, and Gerard Arceri was on pace to shatter the NCAA single-game record for ground balls — which was 27 prior to this season — with 22 by halftime. (He finished with 24; Tambroni pulled his starters at the beginning of the final period.)
The list of precedents and records goes on and on for Penn State. Some other highlights: Penn State is on a 12-game winning streak, the longest in the nation. It’s tops in the nation in scoring (17.33 goals per game), the best average since 1997 Virginia (18.21). And it nearly broke the NCAA tournament record Sunday for single-game scoring (28 goals), as it led 23-7 after the third period, until Tambroni opted to go for sportsmanship instead of the jugular.
“They gave us everything we could handle and more today,” UMBC coach Ryan Odom said.
“Zombie Nation” flooded the loudspeakers after every goal and, at several points, the 1,433 fans in attendance had barely stopped applauding when another goal was scored. UMBC registered the first goal of the game less than two minutes after the opening faceoff, but Penn State responded with four goals in a span of just 2:29. It led the rest of the way.
The Nittany Lions raced to their goal after the final whistle to spend a few moments piling on in a circle and embracing. And a few players lingered on the field, after the season’s final home game, and posed for pictures with friends and family.
But, after that, Sunday’s historic win seemed to be out of the minds of the players. They have bigger goals — that won’t be realized unless they’re on Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field on May 27 for the national title.
“It’ll be nice not to hear people talk about Penn State not ever winning a playoff game,” Tambroni said. “But to get over the hump like this and know we keep playing together, it’s special.”