Penn State has held the No. 1 ranking for several weeks, but the Nittany Lions aren’t clear-cut favorites to win the NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse tournament that begins this weekend.
This will be top-seeded Penn State’s third tournament appearance in the nine seasons Jeff Tambroni has been the head coach, and the Nittany Lions just captured their first Big Ten title last week.
So, few know how Penn State will respond to the pressure.
A bigger question involves the local teams competing, and whether No. 6 seed Towson, No. 8 seed Loyola Maryland and unseeded Maryland have realistic shots at winning the title.
Penn State has been the most balanced and dangerous team throughout the season. The Nittany Lions lead the nation in scoring, averaging 17.3 goals per game, but they also play pressure defense.
They like to press, which enables them to take a lot of teams out of rhythm and disrupt their offense. They would be the clear-cut favorites if they had the historic background and proud tradition of programs such as Johns Hopkins or Syracuse.
Penn State might have to face Syracuse in the quarterfinals, which could create the early pressure the Nittany Lions aren’t used to feeling.
Duke is the No. 2 seed, and the Blue Devils have plenty of offense, averaging 12.1 goals, but they don’t have a go-to performer, the player who is going to deliver the big goal in crunch time. That player is needed this time of year.
An Ivy League team could easily win the national championship again. No. 5 seed Yale is the defending national champion and the Bulldogs are just as big, athletic and nearly as dominant as a year ago, but so is No. 4 seed Penn, which ran toe-to-toe with Yale almost a week ago to win the conference title, 12-11.
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, but that Hopkins-versus-Penn State game was one of the best that I saw over the weekend,” Loyola Maryland coach Charley Toomey said when asked about front-runners. “Both Yale and Penn are playing at a real high clip.”
The Greyhounds were playing a high level for a while, too, but their offense has cooled in recent weeks. The secret is out: if a team has a good defenseman that can slow attackman Pat Spencer and not force slides to him, then Loyola will struggle.
The offense becomes stagnant, forcing Spencer to try to do everything himself. Loyola, which also lacks creative offensive midfielders, has to find the right balance and chemistry again.
“There is a fine line when you are challenging guys,” Toomey said. “Every team challenges their alpha males to step up in these games, and you want the ball in his hands at big moments. But we have to be more than a two-man game. We have to find that medium of getting everyone involved in the offense, getting guys in the flow.”
Hopkins seems to have found itself. In their past three games, the Blue Jays have beaten Maryland soundly twice and lost, 18-17, in overtime to Penn State in the Big Ten championship game last weekend.
Penn State routed the Blue Jays, 20-9, in a regular-season game April 21. It wasn’t a beatdown, but a mauling. Hopkins might have found the missing ingredient. It’s called toughness.
“I sure hope so,” Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said when asked if his team is peaking. “I think we played extraordinarily hard and we played like a very motivated team. That’s something that has been a bit inconsistent at times. My hope is that we’ve kind of turned that corner and now our guys have grown and developed and understand that this is the kind of effort we need to beat quality teams.
“It’s taken a little longer than we’ve liked, but that is what it is, and I’m glad it’s come, and hopefully we can take confidence from what’s gone on in the last three games and clearly see what it’s going to take moving forward.”
The Blue Jays showed that Maryland has a poor close defense, a group that isn’t aggressive. Hopkins inverted its offense and forced the Terps to defend from behind the goal.
In the tournament, if an opposing team has a good faceoff specialist and attack unit, Maryland will struggle. The Terps might be fortunate in their opening-round game against Towson because the Tigers could be without faceoff specialist Alex Woodall — possibly the best in the nation — because of a facial injury.
Towson is another team that has played well recently, winning four straight at the end of the season after struggling at the midway point.
“It’s not that we simplified it too much, but we’re playing looser, more relaxed, sometimes too relaxed,” Towson coach Shawn Nadelen said. “During the three-game skid, the kids put a lot of pressure on themselves. But they have refocused and we’ve had some guys step up their game. Our first midfield is more consistent and the offense is playing at a pretty high level.
“As for Al, there is nothing definite. He continues to be looked at and evaluated by our training staff. He keeps getting better.”
“We have struggled the first week,” Maryland coach John Tillman said. “One unique change this week, and I’m not sure how much this impacts us, but typically we have started exams in the last four years that first weekend, and this year, we do not. So it is a little different.
“I’m hoping the fact that we don’t have exams on Saturday, because last year, we had guys taking them on Friday and Saturday, it’s different. Kids are out of their routine. You can’t make excuses, but we just haven’t played well that weekend, and I feel totally responsible for that. I’m hopeful that maybe that helps us this weekend and the fact that it’s just another week.”