Although Penn men's lacrosse is scheduled to face a familiar foe this weekend, the Quakers will be excused if they don’t recognize the other team on the field.
On Saturday, the Red and Blue (5-3, 2-0 Ivy) will travel to New Haven, Conn., to take on Yale, a team that has asserted itself as a new power in Division I lacrosse. According to the most recent Inside Lacrosse ranking, the Bulldogs (7-0, 2-0) currently stand as the best team in the country, already with impressive wins against Maryland and St. John's bolstering their resume.
The owners of the highest RPI in the Ivy League, Yale’s No. 1 ranking is the first for an Ivy League school since Princeton in 2009 and is also the first such distinction in the Bulldog program's 134-year history.
Penn, meanwhile, will attempt to make a quick recovery from a 13-8 loss to No. 5 Maryland on Tuesday. The Quakers, after getting off to a fast 2-0 start with goals from freshman Simon Mathias and junior Austin Kreinz, lost their offensive momentum as the match wore on. Although the match was close at the halftime whistle, the Terrapins held Penn scoreless over a 24-minute stretch while simultaneously widening their lead to six.
The Quakers cannot afford to exhibit such inconsistency this weekend, as Yale possesses one of the best defensive units in the nation. Helmed by preseason first team All-American and top-10 2016 MLL Draft selection Michael Quinn, the Bulldogs have allowed an average of just 6.86 goals per game, good for the third-lowest mark in the country.
Penn coach Mike Murphy emphasized that there is still a learning curve for his offensive players — and that competition like Yale would give his young team a valuable test.
“We’re young everywhere, but we’re young on offense in particular. I think when they saw the score [against Maryland] and they realized we hadn’t scored in a while, they started to press a little bit,” Murphy said. “We just took a couple of shots we probably shouldn’t have taken in the third quarter, and if we can learn from that, I think we won’t have those lapses.”
The Elis, however, are no pushovers on the other side of the field either: their offense has scored at least 10 goals in all but one of their games. Yale is led by reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year Ben Reeves, owner of the fourth-highest points per game average — 5.14 — among all D-I players.
In order to counter Yale’s depth, the Quakers must improve at winning possession of the ball, an area in which they have struggled mightily. Faceoff troubles have plagued Murphy’s team since the season’s onset, with multiple players trying and failing to make an impact at the X.
Penn’s faceoff win rate currently sits at a dismal 36.4 percent, greatly stymying the Quakers’ ability to employ the fast-paced, transition offense that suits their personnel. And, in addition to contributing to their offensive woes, face-off losses put extra pressure on Penn’s defense and rookie goalkeeper Reed Junkin.
“Face-offs have definitely not been our strongest point within the team. But we have a lot of guys capable of taking face-offs, so we’re going to mix it up,” senior captain Nick Doktor said. “We’re going to throw out different looks in terms of different guys on the wings, different guys on the X. Yale’s another good faceoff team but I think we’ll be able to make some adjustments”
Murphy and his staff have also prioritized face-offs in practice, allowing the Red and Blue to attempt to remedy their most glaring weakness.
“In the past three weeks, since the Villanova game really, we’ve tried some different things. We’ve tried different personnel, we’ve got another one or two guys taking face-offs,” Murphy said. “We’ve modified our wing play and slightly modified the way we drill them. We’ve been focusing on different techniques in practice.
"We’re looking at everything.”
The Quakers will certainly examine all areas of their team ahead of the matchup with Yale, as Saturday’s match could be particularly crucial in determining the post-season fate of these teams. Both squads are both undefeated in the Ivy League, with the winner set to take the top spot in the conference standings.
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