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Preston: Penn State's offense moving into high gear for NCAA lacrosse semifinals

Few coaches can give better insight on the teams in the NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse final four than Loyola Maryland’s Charley Toomey, whose Greyhounds played Virginia, Duke and Penn State this season and Yale in 2018.

So, without hesitation, he says what a lot of fans are thinking about Saturday’s semifinals in Philadelphia, where top-seeded Penn State plays No. 5 seed Yale and No. 2 seed Duke takes on No. 3 seed Virginia.

“I personally think the championship game will be played in the semifinal game,” said Toomey, referring to the matchup between Penn State and Yale. “With respect to all the teams out there, Yale has one of the best faceoff guys in the country and getting through Penn was huge for them, but Penn State is a different animal right now.”

Few knew how the Nittany Lions would perform in the NCAA tournament. They beat Maryland for the first time this season and also won the Big Ten regular-season and conference tournament titles, but they had never won an NCAA tournament game in the nine years coach Jeff Tambroni had been at the school.

As expected, Penn State pummeled UMBC, 25-10, in a first-round game and defeated Loyola, 21-14, on Sunday. Everyone knew the Nittany Lions had a prolific offense, but they scored 46 goals in two postseason games after averaging about 17 during the regular season.

It’s not individual players such as attackmen Mac O’Keefe (75 goals, 18 assists), Grant Ament (27 G, 91 A) and Dylan Foulds (38 G, 13 A) or midfielder Jack Kelly (40 G, 9 A) that make the offense special but the design itself. Even when Penn State struggles offensively, the Nittany Lions (16-1) can go on a scoring spurt because the offense consists of players in constant motion, and they are always filling empty spaces.

It’s pretty to watch, unless you are the opposing coach.

“They move the ball as well as anybody,” Toomey said. “They play their man off the ball, they cut hard. They don’t just jog to space but sprint to it. They make you defend them regardless, if you are on or off the ball. When defending someone that hard off the ball, it leaves the guy on the ball on an island. It’s the best offense I’ve seen since the Gaits [brothers Paul and Gary] at Syracuse in the 90s.”

Yale might have the answer. The Bulldogs were the only team to defeat Penn State this season. In that game, Yale’s TD Ierlan won 25 of 31 faceoffs in a 14-13 win. He is considered by many to be the best faceoff specialist in the country, and the Bulldogs have enough offensive talent around him in attackmen Matt Brandau (40 goals, 21 assists), Jackson Morrill (43 G, 45 A) and Matt Gaudet (47 G, 2 A) and midfielder Jack Tigh (27 G, 16 A) to pull an upset.

But even when Ierlan was so dominant, the Bulldogs only beat Penn State by a goal.

“Defeating Penn State is doable, but you have to play a complete game, almost a perfect game,” ESPN and Big Ten Network lacrosse analyst Mark Dixon said. “They have proven to be special in 2019, especially on the offensive end. You have to come up with a game plan that not only limits them, but also execute a game plan that most teams haven’t been able to do.

“So, if you are going to beat them, you have to keep the ball away from them as much as possible, but when they have it, you have to come up with something special.”

Yale hasn’t played well on defense the past couple of weeks. The Bulldogs gave up 16 goals in a win against Georgetown on May 11 and allowed 18 in a scoring marathon against Penn last week.

“Goals are up a lot this year with the shot clock, but Yale’s defense seems like it has regressed as the season went on instead of progressing,” Dixon said.

The Nittany Lions have had their own problems on defense, especially because they like to press and get pressure on the ball. Sometimes that strategy has backfired and led to easy goals.

No goalkeeper on any of the four teams has been dominant.

“I think defensively, everybody has flaws,” Toomey said. “I am not sold on any one goaltender, but one might get hot, like Yale’s did last year.”

It’s strange that defense is a strong point for Duke, which is traditionally known for having a strong offense. The Blue Devils are led by close defensemen JT Giles-Harris and Cade Van Raaphorst and are allowing only 9.41 goals a game.

Usually at this time of year, the Blue Devils are favorites to win the championship, especially after winning titles in 2010, 2013 and 2014. But Duke isn’t getting that type of respect in 2019.

“Usually Duke loses a couple of games early, and then everyone is talking about how they are the favorites coming into championship weekend,” Dixon said. “I know Duke has beaten Virginia 19 out of 20 times, including earlier this season, but that’s because Michael Kraus didn’t play.

“The way things are trending, no one would be surprised if Virginia beat Duke. No one is afraid of Duke coming into Saturday, and maybe that’s the way [Duke coach John Danowski] wants it.”

Toomey and Loyola beat Virginia, 17-9, in the season opener, but lost 12-7 to Duke. He likes the way the Blue Devils hustle for ground balls and ride opposing teams when they attempt to clear. He says Duke is at its best when the ball is on the ground.

When it comes to offense, Virginia is a step down from Penn State. But the Cavaliers have some quality scorers, such as Kraus (35 goals, 32 assists), fellow attackmen Ian Laviano (46 G, 11 A) and Matt Moore (40 G, 40 A), and midfielders Dox Aitken (39 G, 7 A) and Ryan Conrad (28 G, 18 A). Conrad (Loyola Blakefield) dominates play and has contributed to several fast-break goals.

But the Cavaliers’ defense is questionable. They have improved since the beginning of the season, but still are far from dominant.

“The guy that makes them go right now is Conrad,” Toomey said. “He has put the team on his back and willed them to win. Defensively, Virginia is athletic, but they tend to play on islands a little bit. If you can run by them, you can score some easy goals on them. But you have to stop Conrad to get to them. It’s going to be a war.”

Regardless, the champion seems destined to come out of the Penn State-Yale game. The Bulldogs are the defending champions and Penn State has been the most complete and consistent team all season.

“It’s a season of firsts for them,” Dixon said. “They beat Maryland for the first time and won their first Big Ten regular-season and conference tournament titles. It took them a while to get where they are, but they’ve made a lot of steps in between and keep moving in the right direction.”

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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