Win or go home.
Penn men’s lacrosse will be headed up to Harvard this weekend in what is likely a must-win game for both teams if they hope to make it to the Ivy Tournament for a chance at an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament in May.
The Quakers (4-5, 1-3 Ivy) currently sit at sixth place in the Ivy League standings, while the Crimson (5-5, 1-2) are one spot ahead at number five. Having already accumulated three losses in the conference, Penn will likely need to win out and get further help from other teams in the conference to keep Harvard and Cornell (currently holding the fourth and final Ivy Tournament spot) from making it to the playoffs.
Luckily for the Red and Blue, they have a relatively easy schedule remaining in the conference; after this weekend, their sole remaining Ivy foe will be the basement-dwelling Big Green of Dartmouth, a team that has yet to register a win in the conference.
That being said, the Quakers know they will have to make adjustments to their game if they hope to sneak into the tourney.
“It’s pretty simple actually: we’ve got to win faceoffs,” Penn coach Mike Murphy said. “Against a team like Brown, if you have ten less possessions, it’s hard to overcome the disparity in the number of opportunities. We’re going to have to execute better all over the field, but the possession part is really significant.”
One positive note for the Quakers is that sophomore goalie Reed Junkin returned to peak form against one of the nation’s most prolific offenses last week, tying a career-high by making an astounding 17 saves. Junkin hit a bit of a sophomore slump in the weeks leading up to that, posting lower figures for save percentage and saves per game this year than he had last year.
But to his credit, he was able to bounce back with an all-star performance against the powerful Brown offense at just the right time for the Quakers. They will need him to step up again this week, as Harvard attackman Morgan Cheek averages 2.9 goals per game, good for tenth in the nation.
However, the team knows it will take more than just one player to propel them into the Ivy League tournament. The upperclassmen and captains will have to rely on their wisdom and maturity to play up to their potential while also making sure that the players around them are playing their best games.
“More than anything, we’re just trying to be positive with everyone,” senior captain Tyler Earley said. “Obviously an important game, but the season is still completely in our destiny for the most part, and it’s never good to get caught up in looking ahead.
“We just want to stay in the moment. We’ve been playing really good lacrosse at certain points in the season, but right now we’re just really trying to focus on details within the system and getting better at those.”
It’s a long road ahead, but if the Quakers catch their stride at the right time, they have a good chance to not only make the tournament, but to win it; excluding the game against Princeton, the average margin of victory in the Ivy games Penn has played so far has been just two goals. Its 1-3 record doesn’t tell the full story.
While the chances of getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tourney are slim, a string of quality wins against Ivy teams could garner the Quakers an automatic bid into bracket, where they haven’t made an appearance since 2014, when players like Earley were just freshmen.
“It would mean everything [to make the NCAA Tournament]. Our goal, especially this year, is always to win a national championship,” Earley said. “For every class that comes through Penn, the goal is to leave the program better than you found it. We came here and we were lucky enough to be part of a great team right off the bat, so leaving the program better than we found it would mean going even further in the NCAA Tournament, and we believe we can do it.”