The toughest steel is forged in the hottest fire.
That is clearly the belief of Penn men's lacrosse coach Mike Murphy, who, in crafting this year’s schedule of play, ensured that his young team would have to stand the heat.
Although the Quakers (4-2) have had a successful start to the season, they have failed to register a signature win. Their inability to record a memorable victory, however, cannot be blamed on a lack of opportunity. Half of Penn’s opponents to date were ranked within the top-20 teams nationwide, with power conference foes Virginia and Villanova representing two of Penn’s greatest early-season tests. And, despite their cumulative GPA of 3.3, the Quakers were unable to pass. A 15-10 loss to the Cavaliers exposed the Red and Blue’s shaky performance at the face-off and a 12-6 drubbing at the paws of the Wildcats demonstrated a lack of offensive consistency.
Penn, however, will have no time to dwell on previous performances. The meat of their particularly brutal schedule lies ahead, featuring a slate of four games against opponents currently ranked in the top 15. And, although traditional powerhouses like No. 6 Maryland await them, the Quakers will find that their biggest obstacles emerge in more unlikely places.
This season has seen the traditional power structure of Ivy League lacrosse disintegrate. A hierarchy that once consistently placed Princeton and Cornell at the top has reversed entirely. Those two teams, who now occupy the lower echelons of the conference along with Dartmouth, have combined for over 50 league championships. A new guard has been ushered in, with Yale, Brown and Harvard occupying top positions in not only the Ivy League but also in the entirety of Division I lacrosse. Five Ivy teams received votes in the most recent national poll, more than any other conference.
Murphy commented on the incredible competitiveness of the Ancient Eight.
“It’s a very strong conference. A lot of the best high schools in the country academically are also committed to lacrosse,” Murphy said. “There are a lot of good players out there and obviously these are all very good academic schools. I don’t think any of us are taking shortcuts. This is not a win-at-all costs situation like a BCS football program.”
This newfound conference depth, however, leaves Penn in a decidedly uncomfortable position. Sandwiched between the cream of the crop and the lesser Ivy members, the Quakers occupy a unique space. Faced with the likelihood of not receiving an outright bid to the year-end NCAA Championships, Penn will have to shore up its resume by participating in difficult non-conference matchups, including matches against the perpetually dominant Maryland Terrapins and the rising Hawks of Saint Joseph’s. Apart from simply bolstering the team’s RPI, Murphy believes a strong strength of schedule impacts his team in several ways.
“There are three reasons [for creating a difficult schedule]. Playing these good teams helps us prepare for the Ivy portion of our schedule. We can spot some of our weaknesses and shore them up,” said Murphy. “Number two, I think recruits want to play challenging teams and I think getting ready for a good team is more fun. And, obviously, the most functional part of it is the RPI and the SOS, which helps you get an at-large bid.”
By the end of their season, Penn’s RPI will likely have finished one of the 10 most difficult slates in the entire country. Whether the Quakers can weather the storm, however, remains to be seen.
But for now, the Red and Blue have their sights set on their immediate threat. Cornell will visit Franklin Field sporting a record of 3-3 and will look to bounce back following a 15-9 loss to No. 4 Yale. The Quakers are looking to build momentum after demolishing Princeton by a score of 20-10. In that game, freshman attack Simon Mathias and sophomore Kevin McGeary each scored 5 times, and senior captain
Nick Doktor tallied a season-high seven points for the Quakers. But against the Big Red, the Red and Blue will once again contend with elite individual talent. Cornell junior Domenic Massimilian has established himself as one of the most dominant face-off men in the country, ranking in the top-ten in win percentage at the X. Massimilian’s presence could once again highlight an early-season weakness for the Quakers, whose face-off struggles played a large role in losses to Virginia and Villanova.
“He’s definitely one of the best in the country,” Doktor said. “Our face-off guys have been working hard all week. They’re trying to counteract some of the moves he does. But, really, it’s not necessarily a one-on-one face-off battle. It’s a three-on-three battle if you look at it from the midfield or you could view it as a ten-on-ten battle.”
The Quakers will also look to exact revenge after a heartbreaking triple overtime loss to Cornell last year. After a first half in which the Big Red dominated across the field, the Quakers held Cornell scoreless, forcing overtime. It wasn’t until the third period of extra lacrosse when Dan Lintner, currently a member of the National Lacrosse Leagues’ Toronto Rock, ended the game with a sudden-death goal.
Now, the matchup looks different. Having fallen from their perennial perch atop the Ivy League, Cornell’s revamped gang of youngsters will have to prove their worth to regain their powerhouse status. As for the Quakers, Saturday’s action will simply be the first step down the long road ahead.
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