Penn State

Penn State men’s lacrosse falls to Yale in NCAA semifinals to end dream season

PSU men’s lacrosse coach Jeff Tambroni discusses first quarter vs. Yale

The Nittany Lions lost Saturday’s national semifinal 21-17 after going down 10-2 in the first quarter.
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The Nittany Lions lost Saturday’s national semifinal 21-17 after going down 10-2 in the first quarter.

Penn State men’s lacrosse coach Jeff Tambroni called timeout with 2:34 remaining in the first quarter of Saturday’s national semifinal and saw up-close what everyone else could tell from afar: The Nittany Lions were stunned.

Penn State — the dominant Big Ten champion, the tournament’s No. 1-seed — trailed by eight goals 13 minutes in. On the game’s biggest stage at Lincoln Financial Field, Yale popped the Nittany Lions in the jaw. And for 15 minutes, Penn State offered little response.

“I could just see it in their eyes that they had the weight of the world on them,” Tambroni said with a grimace following the game, a 21-17 loss. “We just wanted them to relax and compete. ... Just relax and try and enjoy the opportunity that you’ve earned playing over the last nine months.”

The Nittany Lions tried, and it yielded better results in the second quarter and beyond. But not enough to dig themselves out of a hole they created.

The Nittany Lions’ magical season was cut short in Philadelphia. Three hours from Panzer Stadium, Penn State fans packed the Linc; it sounded as if only Yale’s bench cheered when the defending national champions scored. But that energy wasn’t enough to will the Nittany Lions in their first loss since Feb. 23, which also came against Yale. The Bulldogs face Virginia in Monday’s title game, while the Nittany Lions head back to Happy Valley empty-handed.

“I’m at a loss for words that the season is actually over,” Penn State attacker Grant Ament said. “Coach always said, we never really had to see it to believe it to get to this moment, lacrosse’s biggest stage. But obviously we didn’t finish the job.”

In truth, it was the start not the finish that did the Nittany Lions in on Saturday. Yale scored its first goal 52 seconds into the game, notched its second 37 seconds later and netted another at the 12:37 mark. Tambroni burned his first timeout to try and stem the tide; it didn’t work as the Bulldogs ran away with a 10-2 lead at the end of the opening period.

Yale’s offense — one that put 19 goals past both Georgetown and Penn in the NCAA first round and quarterfinals, respectively — clicked. The Bulldogs had seven different scorers on their 10 first-quarter goals. But it was TD Ierlan’s work on faceoffs that set the tone.

Ierlan, who set an NCAA record with 26 consecutive faceoffs won against Harvard last month, took 10 of 13 in the first quarter. The Nittany Lions did everything they could, using four different players at faceoff. It simply didn’t faze Ierlan, who Ament called “one of the best faceoff guys in the country, if not the best who will ever play in college lacrosse.”

Meanwhile, Ament was forced to look on helplessly. The attacker, who set a single-season NCAA assists record this year, was limited to two in the opening period. Ament, Mac O’Keefe, Dylan Foulds and the Nittany Lions’ No. 1 scoring offense guided Penn State to this point, and it managed three shots on goal in the first 15 minutes.

Ierlan’s control of the faceoff tested Penn State’s patience. “The moment you start tightening up your stick, that’s the moment when they can start really pulling ahead,” Ament added.

To Penn State’s credit, Tambroni’s team didn’t cave. The Nittany Lions outscored Yale 11-6 in the second and third periods combined. O’Keefe rattled off a second-quarter hat-trick. Arceri fought in the faceoff, scoring three goals directly off a few wins — which served as reasons for eruption for the pro-Penn State crowd.

“That’s not what we were expecting, being down eight goals at the end of that first quarter,” Nittany Lions senior Nick Spillane said. “But it speaks to the resiliency of the guys. That’s what we’re built on.”

Added senior defender Chris Sabia: “We still never gave up. I’m beyond proud of the boys for doing that.”

But the damage was done in the opening 15 minutes. Yale responded enough times in the middle quarters and netted four unanswered goals to start the fourth. When the clock read zero, the Nittany Lions walked off the Lincoln Financial Field turf, heads in their hands.

For a program that had never won an NCAA tournament before this year, Penn State’s campaign is one worthy of recognition. The Nittany Lions won 16 games in Tambroni’s ninth year at the helm, with its only regular-season loss coming in February. But as Tambroni noted after the game, Penn State finished its season a different team than it was three months ago. It progressed and flourished, which will be helpful as Ament, O’Keefe and a potent attack return in 2020.

Saturday hurt for the Nittany Lions. Spillane, a senior, did everything he could to hold back tears in his postgame press conference. Adjacent to the media room, frustrated expletives could be heard echoing off the team’s locker room walls.

Tambroni said the national semifinal “went awry” for the Nittany Lions. To see Yale rattle off a 10-2 lead was “tough” for the coach.

But the Nittany Lions have an opportunity to learn and grow from this experience, this season — one that was memorable and yet, ended on a bitter note.

“It’s important for these guys to recognize that they’ve been built on adversity, not necessarily success,” Tambroni said. “This is a group that’s faced a lot of tough times. I want them to recognize that each time they face something like that, they’ve gotten up, dusted themselves off and become better. I hope that in some way, shape or form they’ll take solace — not in today’s loss — but in what they’ve helped develop.”