Penn State could be lacrosse's surprise team in 2013

Every year in college lacrosse there seems to be a Delaware, Lehigh or Loyola, a team no one figured to be one of the nation's top contenders.

Could Penn State be that team in 2013?

There wasn't anything unusual about the Nittany Lions' 11-6 season-opening win against Michigan, but Penn State drew some attention with a 15-12 upset of No. 10 Denver on Feb.17.

Then when Penn State took No. 3 Notre Dame to overtime in a 10-9 loss Sunday — a game that featured four lead changes and seven ties — the lacrosse world took notice.

Never has a loss meant so much to the Nittany Lions, who have remained in the top 10 rankings in various polls for the first time since 1996.

"They are great in the goal, and they are getting veteran leadership," said Charley Toomey, coach of defending national champion Loyola. "Penn State has showed they are here to stay."

Actually, the Nittany Lions have proven they are basically one year ahead of schedule in the building process of third-year coach Jeff Tambroni.

It's been vintage Tambroni coaching, very similar to the way he built Cornell from 2001 thru 2010, when the Big Red had a 109-40 record, appeared in three Final Fours and reached the 2009 championship game.

Penn State isn't going to wow any opposing team with the finesse of Virginia or the showmanship of Syracuse, but the Nittany Lions are extremely sound, play hard, outwork most opponents and have found confidence.

Oh, one other thing: They play with a chip on their shoulders.

"They were all pretty tough," Denver coach Bill Tierney said when asked about Penn State's players.

Says Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrgian: "Jeff is a great coach and he has a certain philosophy about building a program and he has done it the right way."

Corrigan should know. He turned Notre Dame into a national power under similar circumstances 25 years ago. Programs like Notre Dame and Penn State are gold mines if they have the right coaches in place.

South Bend, Ind., is a great college town, and so is State College, Pa. Both schools have storied football programs filled with tradition. The potential for the expansion of facilities is endless, and nothing is more jaw dropping and impressive to recruits than watching a packed football stadium of 100,000 or more on Saturday afternoons.

It was only a matter of time before Tambroni won. The bad news for the rest of college lacrosse is that Tambroni has had only two years of recruiting his own players at Penn State.

That's why he might still be a year, possibly two, away from winning a title.

The Nittany Lions are tireless workers who have won more ground balls than the opposition, 100 to 77, thanks to hustling midfielders like Michael Richards, Danny Henneghan and junior defenseman Steven Bogert.

They have ample scoring paced by attackmen Jack Forster (9 goals, two assists), T.J. Sanders (8, 2) and Shane Sturgis (8, 1). But what they lack is the big-time go-to guy, the player who is going to bail them out of trouble when things aren't going well.

Penn State has that player on defense in junior goalie Austin Kaut, who has a .533 save percentage.

"The best goalie in the country," said Toomey, an All-American goalie at Loyola in the late 1980s. "He has great hands."

Corrigan got to see what Kaut can do personally.

"He is very good, and you're going to have to be very good to beat him," Corrigan said. "You're going to have to steal a couple. If you can't beat him at first, you can't get all wigged out because he is going to make his share. You've got to hope you can steal a couple and keep working him."

A great goalie can take a solid team far, and if the Nittany Lions continue to get better, who knows where they might end up? They could be like the Loyola last season.

"I can say about Penn State what I say about every good team," Corrgian said. "They have good players, compete, play smart and don't do a lot of things to hurt themselves. That's a very good team."

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