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Mens Lacrosse vs UMBC Credit: Alexis Ziebelman , Alexis Ziebelman

In the midst of 30 degree weather at last Saturday’s Penn men’s lacrosse game at Franklin Field, I found myself asking an important question while I still had sensation in my fingers and toes.

As I watched the Red and Blue fall to No. 9 Yale, 15-7, I wondered what specifically makes this year’s squad different from the Ivy title winning team from last year?

It’s easy to say because of the group that graduated in 2014. Last year, they were a critical part of the Quakers’ success, and now they are no longer around.

One senior in particular made his mark on the Red and Blue, and the squad has struggled to find a successor up to his caliber. Former goalkeeper Brian Feeney played almost every minute possible during his four-year tenure at Penn in between the pipes.

Junior Jimmy Sestilio and senior John Lopes have split time in goal for Penn so far this season. Both have performed well, but not well enough to give the Quakers a winning record midway through the 2015 campaign.

However, it is too simplistic to put all the weight on these two players, and the problem on that end of the field can be attributed to the defense as a whole.

If Sestilio and Lopes were able to stop every shot fired their way then yes, the Red and Blue would be winning more games. But the Quakers’ problems on defense extend far beyond that.

Saturday’s performance against Yale was the “low-water mark” for Penn’s defense, according to coach Mike Murphy.

“We gave up 15 goals,” Lopes said. “That’s never really a great thing.”

Sestilio agreed.

And though last weekend was rough, the Red and Blue have not been without some successes on the field, with the highlight of the season coming two weekends ago against Cornell, where the Quakers kept the Big Red from getting on the board for 39 minutes.

But for Penn to eventually achieve a winning record, the defense needs to perform more like it did in Ithaca and less like it did on Saturday to prevent the opponent from taking so many quality shots and therefore lighten the load on the goalkeepers.

As my 10-year-old loud-mouthed bleacher companion yelled on Saturday, “What kind of defense is this? Who plays defense away from the ball?”

My new friend, in his youth, simplified the situation. But his analysis was not wrong.

Murphy offered a more nuanced assessment to the problem, but it fits right in line with my little neighbors’ view. The former attributed the breakdown to the defense as a whole, saying “There were maybe only 3 out of 15 [scores] that the goalies might have been able to get.”

Yale outshot the Red and Blue 36-29 on Saturday, and though Penn actually made more saves than the Bulldogs, Yale claimed the victory because of its ability to work around the Quakers’ defense and shoot well and frequently.

Does responsibility then fall on the two goalkeepers? Of course — it is up to them to lead the defense in shutting down opportunities for shots and hold their own in the pipes. But the rest of the defense also needs to step up to bring Penn back to the success it knows it can achieve.

“We are not as good defensively as we were last year,” Murphy said. “We led the country in defense two years ago, and last year we were good. But last year, we call timeout, and we had six seniors and a junior on the field.

“This year, only one of those guys is playing, so there is only back there who is experienced. The realistic assessment of who we are defensively is somewhere in between [the performances against Yale and Cornell].”

It is clear the Red and Blue have the skill and potential. It is just a matter of displaying it on the field to produce a win, even if they are not the squad they were last year.

So, as spring blossoms and life and growth emerge out of the dead of winter, perhaps the Quakers can do the same and change the direction of their season.

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