For Penn men’s lacrosse, three is not a magic number.
The Quakers have placed third in the Ivy standings four out of the past five years. And, despite owning the league’s best overall record and winning the year-end conference tournament in 2014, Penn has been consistently excluded from the top tier of Ivy League lacrosse.
This dynamic was made even more apparent after last season, in which the Yale Bulldogs and Brown Bears soared to new heights. Brown, buoyed by then-junior attackman and Tewaaraton Award winner Dylan Molloy, made it all the way to the semifinals of the NCAA Championships, only to lose in overtime to Maryland. Yale, led by their own prodigious goalscorer in then-sophomore Ben Reeves, won the Ivy Tournament and received the #4 seed in the NCAAs.
Although Yale and Brown are now the class of the Ivy League, their dominance is a recent phenomenon. Princeton and Cornell were formerly the teams to beat, as the two programs, now mired in mediocrity, own 45 outright Ivy titles and 9 national championships combined.
Penn, as a result, has always been on the outside looking in. And this season might reflect more of the same. The Ivy League Preseason Poll has the Quakers again slotted at third, behind first place Yale and second place Brown. The Bulldogs return two All-Americans while Brown returns three. Penn, lacking similar star power, is bringing back junior honorable mention All-American Connor Keating and co-Ivy League Rookie of the Year Award winners Simon Mathias and Reed Junkin for their sophomore seasons.
Therefore, the reigning regular season and tournament champions each provide unique obstacles for the young, ambitious Quakers. Yale, as Mathias remarked, is “very scrappy and well-organized.” Coach Mike Murphy concurred, stating, “Yale has always been a deliberate, tough minded team. They will grind it out on the offensive end and are very consistent and disciplined on the defensive end.” The Bulldogs’ ability to act as a well-oiled machine depends heavily on the individual performances of their star players. Reeves, a First-Team All American and Yale’s first finalist for the Tewaaraton Award, serves as the team’s offensive conduit and ranked third in the nation in points per game last season. He is joined by Second Team All-Ivy midfielder Eric Scott, who is poised to lead Yale’s potent two-headed attack.
The Quakers, however, may be able to take advantage of Yale’s gaps on the defensive side of the field. Elite All-American defenders Michael Quinn and Christopher Keating graduated from Yale’s backend, thinning a stellar unit that allowed an Ivy-best 8.09 goals per game last season.
The burden of the Penn’s attack will fall this year on the shoulders of the Quakers’ youth movement. Mathias, fresh off an excellent freshman season in which he led the team in goals, will lead an offense comprised largely of his sophomore brethren. Fellow second-year attackmen Alex Roesner and Tyler Dunn, who return to collegiate play after winning the FIL U-19 World Championship alongside Mathias, will look to build off debut seasons that established them as productive starters.
In combatting the other side of the Ivy League’s two-headed monster, Penn will have to be vigilant against the high-octane offense of the Brown Bears. Molloy, crowned as last season’s Division I lacrosse’s best player, is a historically productive attackman. The senior led the nation in points last season with 118, the fourth-highest mark in NCAA history. Equally potent as a passer and scorer, Molly cemented his place in the Ivy League pantheon by breaking his school goals record and earning two Ivy League Player of the Year honors in a row. He is joined by senior long-stick midfielder (LSM) Larken Kemp and senior defenseman Alec Tullet, both of whom earned All-American honors last season.
Penn’s defense, however, looks to meet the challenge of an unpredictable offense centered around the creative genius of Molloy.
“Brown just plays fast which is a little deceiving because they’re willing to take risks on offense and not so much on defense. The way we’re built by unit, offense and defense, and the way we approach the game isn’t dependent on pace. If teams want to play fast, we’ll play fast. We prefer that, honestly,” Murphy said.
On the defensive side, Penn is led by Keating, an LSM whose ability to cause turnovers and snag ground balls earned him First-Team All Ivy honors along with his All-American designation. He also led the nation in long-pole scoring, demonstrating an offensive flair along with his defensive prowess.
Most importantly, Keating is poised to inherit a prominent leadership role after the departure of Nick Doktor. Although not officially a team captain, Keating’s importance to the team’s cohesion ensures that he will, to an extent, run the show.
“It’s really easy when I have quality guys around me to step up as a leader,” Keating said. “The guys like Nick Doktor, [Matt] McMahon, and [Joe] McCallion have really shaped the platform for us and given us that ideal example to embrace.”
Junkin, the team’s young goalie, will also prove crucial to the team’s defensive success the coming season. In earning Ivy Rookie of the Year honors along with Mathias, marking the first time that the award has ever been shared, Junkin established himself as one of the nation’s best young goalkeepers and led the conference in saves per game. Early reports from Mathias suggest that Junkin is once again playing “lights-out,” giving Penn hope that its chance at joining the Ivy elite has finally arrived.