They may share their namesake with a team known for pulling off astounding comebacks, but there was no epic rally in the cards for the Cavaliers of Virginia men’s lacrosse at Franklin Field on Saturday.
On an unseasonably warm day in front of a raucous crowd of more than 1,500 people, No. 17 Penn pulled out a wild upset win in a back-and-forth battle between two top-20 teams, beating back No. 6 Virginia’s persistent attack in an 11-10 win. A stark contrast from the Red and Blue’s , the signature win serves as a reminder of the hard road that lies ahead.
For now, however, Penn (2-0) will bask in the glory of the unexpected win while it can. Although the team’s players and staff may disagree, a win over Virginia is a definite upset, as the Cavaliers are traditionally placed in the highest echelons of Division I Lacrosse. Just last season, Penn lost 15-10 to a Virginia team that was arguably worse than this year’s squad.
In that match, the Quakerswere constantly playing from behind. But, in Saturday’s contest, the teams reversed roles.
Penn took the lead with an offensive blitz, as junior Reilly Hupfeldt started off the scoring with long shot into the bottom of the net. Junior Chris Santangelo contributed two goals immediately after face-off wins, and sophomore Alex Roesner tallied one of his own to make it a 4-1 lead for Penn after eight minutes of play.
Virginia (3-1), despite tying the score four times over the course of the match, would never pull ahead of the Quakers. UVA’s offensive sluggishness, a major departure from its 18 goals per game average, can be owed to Penn’s ability to slow down the pace of play. Under the tutelage of former Brown coach, Lars Tiffany, the Cavaliers have relied on their transition game and raw athleticism to generate as many shots as possible.
Penn head coach Mike Murphy agreed that familiarity with Tiffany’s gameplan helped the team prepare for the unique challenges that Virginia presented. “[Brown and Virginia] were very similar. We played Virginia last year so we looked at their personnel and Brown’s scheme, and we put them together.”
Penn’s stout defense, spearheaded by sophomore goalkeeper Reed Junkin, senior defenseman Kevin Gayhardt, and junior All-American Connor Keating, contained Virginia’s speed by implementing a zone defense. Junkin, who drastically outplayed his counterpart in tallying 16 saves, has been particularly impressive in the early stretches of the season.
“He’s as good a goalie as there is in the country,” Gayhardt said. “He covers up so many of our mistakes. We’ll go back to the film and we’ll see five or six plays every week where the defense messes up in front and Reed makes an amazing play and bails us all out. It allows us to take a few more chances.”
The collective defensive effort resulted in protracted Cavaliers’ possessions, forcing freshman sensation Dox Aitken and his fellow attackmen to work for every goal.
And work they did.
Every time the Quakers surged ahead, Virginia quickly answered. By halftime, the score was knotted at 7-7, forcing both teams to reconsider their strategies in the locker room. Penn’s response was to increase the pace of it’s own offense. Sophomore Tyler Dunn scored his second of the game in transition off an assist from fellow second-year player Simon Mathias. A few minutes later, an impressive reflex save by Junkin led to a running score from Keating, who deposited his second goal of the season in between the Virginia goalie’s legs.
Virginia responded by capitalizing on Penn mistakes. An errant ground ball that Keating failed to win after a face-off led to an Aitken goal to bring the score to 10-9. And Penn, finally succumbing to UVA’s relentless full-field pressure, gave up a free score as Junkin attempted to clear the ball himself and turned it over at midfield.
“They were pressing our defensemen really hard,” Junkin said. “They gave me a lot of opportunities to run up which normally doesn’t happen. So that was a new thing and I don’t think I did great on that, but I think it’s something we can work on.”
Tied at 10, the two teams began an intense fight to tally the go-ahead goal in the last eight minutes of the match. Dunn eventually converted as he scored a lefty fastball to complete his hat trick.
Penn, however, still had to maintain its slim lead. The defense, buoyed by Junkin’s three crucial saves in the final minutes, managed to stave off the nifty passing and backhanded shot attempts by Virginia. Even after committing turnovers and incurring a pair of last-minute penalties, the Quakers survived to hold on to the one-goal win.
Looking ahead, Penn is not satisfied despite beating a top-six seed for only the second time throughout Murphy’s eight-year tenure. The team’s last such victory came against No. 6 Denver in 2014.
One area that demands improvement is the face-off. Last year, the Quakers were consistently outgunned at the X, preventing them from employing the zone defense that served them so well this Saturday. This trend, despite the efforts of face-off specialist Santangelo, has continued in the early parts of this season, with Penn only winning 10 of the 24 face-offs on Saturday.
“Face-offs are the biggest thing for us moving forward,” Murphy said. “Chris Santangelo does a good job with the draws and there were a lot of 50-50 balls that we just got beat to. Kevin McDonough got hurt in the third quarter, which affected our ability to put two poles in the face-off. We got to get better at the X and get better on the wings this week.”
These improvements must come quickly as Penn’s next opponent will not let any offensive opportunities slip by without a fight. No. 9 Penn State (4-0), fresh off a win over Villanova, sports an offense led by the leading goalscorer in the country.
True freshman Mac O’Keefe has tallied a whopping 24 scores over the first four games of the season, but if the Quakers’ defensive core can perform similarly to the way it did today, the contest might lend the phrase “Not Penn State” an entirely different meaning.