If there's one thing to know about men’s college lacrosse, it's that the Ivy League is absolutely stacked offensively this year.
You’ve got the reigning NCAA Player of the Year with Brown’s Dylan Molloy at attack. You have a finalist for the same award in Yale’s Ben Reeves. There’s Zach Currier, Princeton’s rangy, do-it-all midfielder. Cornell’s freshman attackman Jeff Teat was Inside Lacrosse’s number one recruit in the country. Harvard’s Morgan Cheek is fresh off a 60 point sophomore campaign. You get the picture. The Ivy League can score goals.
So how does Penn, with its less heralded, younger offensive talents, matchup?
Simply put, by stopping goals. That’s how.
Led by a trio of seniors, Penn’s defense is ready to face off with some of the nation’s premier talent, and if last year is any indication, Penn’s covermen can more than hold their own.
Seniors Kevin Gayhardt, Eric Persky and Kevin McDonough combine to form one of the most formidable defensive units in the country. Gayhardt, the captain, is a vocal leader who matches up well with big attackmen, as evidenced by his even battles with Yale’s Reeves last season. Persky is an active on-ball defender who rarely requires a slide. And McDonough’s agility and foot speed make him a nuisance for opposing ball carriers. Their combined talents formed a defense that held the opposition under 10 goals on seven different occasions, an impressive feat in the run-and-gun Ivy League.
A major factor in that success is that the trio’s four years together has facilitated an awareness for each other.
“I think the most important thing is that we kind of know where each other will be at all times,” Gayhardt said. “Especially playing a game that moves so fast, being able to fall back on four years of repetition and knowing Kevin’s and Eric’s tendencies, and how to adjust your game to that, I think it’s a big advantage for us.”
Another notable advantage is the consistency that comes with three seniors in your back end, a consistency that may be needed to offset the up-and-down play that generally comes with younger players, like the three — Alex Roesner, Tyler Dunn and reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year Simon Mathias.
However, as Penn’s senior defenders will tell you, you needn’t be too worried about the production in the offensive end of the field this year.
“Our attack has been doing a really good job in practice,” McDonough said. “They’ve been beating us up a bit.”
Besides making the more veteran players work a bit harder in practice, the sophomores have been reminding the squad of another group of classmates who grew to form one of the country’s top units.
“Those guys, just like what me, Kevin, and Eric have done in the past four years, are really starting to develop cohesion amongst themselves,” Gayhardt said. “They’re the next group to watch out for.”
However, as for the group to watch out for this year, that title still rests with the defense, as the consistency of the seniors will be supplemented by some explosive, younger talent. Connor Keating, a first-team All-Ivy selection as a sophomore last year, is earning preseason All-American consideration with his unique ability to provide offense from the long stick midfielder position. Despite his official designation as a defensive player, his 17 points last season were good for sixth on the team and added an intriguing wrinkle to the Penn attack.
Adding to the stout defensive corps are the two goalies Penn will utilize this season, Reed Junkin, who shared the Ivy League Rookie of the Year award with Mathias last year, and Alex DeMarco, the highly touted freshman from the Haverford School.
“You really need six good players to play sound defense in this game, and I think we have the personnel for that this year,” coach Mike Murphy said. “We led the country in goals against a couple of years ago. I think this defense could approach that level if we keep getting better.”
As always, it is on the senior leadership to implement that process of improvement of which Murphy speaks. Luckily, playing in a league in which major individual and team recognition has been going to your rivals, this group has plenty of motivation to do so.
“Obviously, the fact that it’s our last year, it means a lot to us,” McDonough said. “We have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder.”
The rest of the Ivy League better be wary, because that chip is not going away anytime soon. These three senior defenders will make sure of that.