The first thing one notices about Kevin Gayhardt is his height.
At 6-foot-6, the senior men’s lacrosse defenseman towers above his own teammates and makes the average observer wonder if lacrosse is the right sport for him.
It fact, Gayhardt himself had difficulty choosing a singular athletic pursuit before arriving at Penn.
In high school, the defenseman was a multi-sport athlete, also excelling in football and basketball for Episcopal Academy, one of the selective Main Line private high schools that serves as a breeding ground for Penn athletes across all disciplines.
But when Quakers coach Mike Murphy made his customary recruiting calls to these feeder schools, Gayhardt, quite literally, stood out amongst the fray.
“Number one, his size [was important]. He wasn’t 6-foot-6 then, he was around 6-foot-3 as a sophomore or junior in high school. And I think his communication skills, his game sense [were good], and he was certainly athletic for his size. We recruited him more as an off-ball defender, whereas now he’s really evolved in a lot of ways.”
On the defensive end, where fundamentals reign supreme, developing stick skills or fancy footwork is not necessarily a priority. Gayhardt’s evolution, as Murphy puts it, is a product of relentless work. Improvements in agility, speed and strength, achieved through both natural physical growth and extensive conditioning, have placed the senior in the tier of the same defensemen who mentored him during his years as an underclassman.
When he first became a Quaker, the unique challenges of the collegiate game proved difficult for Gayhardt.
“One of the biggest adjustments for me was that in high school, offenses center around one guy and in college, there are six guys who can really hurt you. I think the thing I’ve improved on the most is playing in a team defense,” Gayhardt said.
Gayhardt’s understanding of the nuances of a cohesive defense, built around strategy rather than containment of a single offensive player, came only after observing the elite play of his predecessors.
“When I came, it was similar to this year, and we had an upperclassman-laden defense,” Gayhardt said. “We had Maxx Meyer, who was a two-year captain and a senior. He was really helpful for me, teaching me not just how we play defense, but also how to act as a Penn lacrosse player. Matt McMahon was also really helpful. I developed a good relationship with him since we play similar styles. I owe a lot to those guys.”
Meyer earned third-team All American status in 2014 while McMahon, a former first team All-Ivy selection, is currently a member of Major League Lacrosse’s Ohio Machine.
Senior defenseman Kevin McDonough, who entered Penn alongside Gayhardt, expanded on the influence of the defense’s older generation.
“Maxx Meyer really made a lot of things happen freshman year. He was a big reason for our success. The whole senior class when we were freshmen showed us how to work everyday and really set the tone for the culture.”
But it is Gayhardt’s own leadership that truly helped him outpace the rest of his peers and enter the same echelon as Meyer and McMahon. The senior not only provides an imposing physical presence for opponent attackmen but also uses his voice to command the field. In a sport which requires constant movement and defensive switches, much like basketball, a defensive anchor yelling out instruction and strategy is a must-have.
“I haven’t always been a great communicator on the field, and Kevin has definitely helped me in my role. If I’m not the voice that’s being heard, you’ll always hear him,” sophomore goalie Reed Junkin said. “He’s the main commander and leader, he tells everyone where to go and he helps my job a lot more.”
“He’s the heart and soul of the defense,” McDonough added. “He has been for a couple of years now. He’s really good at firing guys up. I remember our sophomore year, we were down pretty big to Saint Joe’s and he brought us in and gave a fiery speech that got us going. He’s not afraid to be the bad guy in practice when our defense isn’t playing very well.”
As the most decorated member of the senior class, Gayhardt has also cemented himself as the team’s strongest leader off the field and in the locker room.
“We do this thing called ‘The Program’ every year when these Navy officers come in and teach us about leadership. Kevin Gayhardt is always the leader in that program and emulates as best he can what those leaders of our country are doing,” Junkin said.
Gayhardt’s qualitative skills have translated directly to tangible statistical success. In earning a second-team All-Ivy selection his junior year, he led the team in turnovers caused, successfully limited some of the best attackmen in college lacrosse and led one of the top defenses in the country in goals allowed per game (GPG).
It is also up to Gayhardt, however, to overcome significant obstacles this season after disappointing results in early Ivy play. A miraculous comeback was needed to defeat Ivy doormat Cornell, a win which was sandwiched by a blowout loss to Princeton and a deceptively close defeat against Yale.
Both of those games, which place Penn fourth among Ivies in GPG, saw slippages on the defensive end, as Gayhardt and his crew look to reclaim the fundamental skills that propelled them to wins against Navy and Virginia, a match which Gayhardt pointed to as a highlight of his career.
Gayhardt, however, seems prepared for the tough road ahead. When asked to reflect on his time at Penn, he instead preferred to focus on the immediate future.
“I think back to the pinnacle years, when we won the Ivy Tournament [in 2014]. That was such a great run. I think back to last season when we beat Harvard in overtime which was a great win,” Gayhardt said. “But honestly I’m hoping that the best moments are still ahead of us.”