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Senior close defense Connor Keating is changing positions this season so he can stay on the field at all times.

Credit: Pranay Vemulamada

We may only be midway through February, but the season is about to commence for Penn men’s lacrosse.

And if you think February 17 is an early start date for a spring sport, check out the schedule for Penn’s opponent, Michigan.

The Wolverines (2-0), who defeated Penn last year by a score of 13-12, have already played two games this season. On Saturday, Feb. 10, in their first contest against second-year program Cleveland State, they won 15-5. On Tuesday they defeated Bellarmine 9-7.

Whether the discrepancy in games played will serve the Quakers positively or negatively is yet to be seen. On one hand, Michigan has had two chances to play at game speed against different jerseys, while the Red and Blue will have to adjust to the accelerated pace of gameplay on the fly at Franklin Field.

On the other hand, the Quakers will be able to dissect film from the two Michigan games, while the Wolverines will have little to base their predictions on regarding the 2018 Penn team. 

Those two games of film could prove crucial for coach Mike Murphy and the Quakers, as this Michigan team will look much different from the squad the Quakers faced last season. 

For starters, the 2018 season will be Kevin Conry’s first year as Michigan’s coach, and with Conry comes a new defensive strategy for the Wolverines. Instead of confining his players to specific designations on the defensive end, Conry has employed a more free-flowing approach so far this season. Under this system, long stick midfielders and close defensemen operate nearly interchangeably. 

The effects of these defensive changes could be mitigated by a veteran Penn offense. Returning players accounted for 96 percent of the team’s total offense last season, or 212 out of the 220 points scored. Leading the charge for Penn on that end of the field are junior Simon Mathias (28 goals, 20 assists) and senior Kevin McGeary (23, 12).

As the sheer number of returning points would indicate, those two are far from alone. Nearly every 2017 contributor is back, which, as Murphy says, has led to intense competition.  

“[The returning talent] makes it competitive for us,” Murphy said. “I think we will be able to play more guys. We have five attackmen that are all proving that they can contribute. A similar thing is happening in the midfield. We’ll have nine or so middies at the offensive end, and we have guys at the defensive end too. So, with all of those potential contributors, it makes it pretty competitive to get on the field for us this year, more so than it has been in a while.”  

While the offense is flush with returning stars, Penn’s defensive identity will have to change considerably with the graduation of 2017 starters Kevin Gayhardt, Eric Perksy, and Kevin McDonough. 

“The heart of the close defense graduated, so we’re just trying to get better day-by-day and week-by-week, by giving our guys experience in practice,” Murphy said. “The nice thing is that our offense is really good, so practicing against that offense has accelerated our growth on the defensive end.”  

Another factor that could accelerate that defensive growth is the role change of All-American senior Connor Keating. Working as a long stick midfielder the past three seasons, Keating has scored 34 points, an extremely high total for a defensive player. 

However, as a function of his position, Keating spent much of his time racing towards the sidelines to substitute for an offensive midfielder or for another long stick midfielder. This season, Keating is shifting to close defense so that he can be on the field at all times and so that he can facilitate the growth of this year’s younger defensive corps.  

When asked if this position change would limit his ventures onto the offensive side of the field, Keating responded emphatically.

“No. That’s my game. That’s what I do. I’ll still be moving up and down the whole time, but now, I’ll be on the field the whole time too.”   

As anyone associated with Penn men’s lacrosse would attest, Keating’s increased presence on the field is good news for the Quakers. 

“He’s as skilled as any defensive player that I’ve ever seen,” Murphy said. “We’re just starting to scratch the surface there.”   

That’s undoubtedly a scary thought for the rest of the Ivy League, but more immediately, for Michigan. 

Although Keating was held scoreless in last year’s contest and the team itself severely underperformed, this year’s Quaker are confident.

“After losing to Michigan last year, we really have our sights set on them. It should be pretty exciting,” Keating said. “We know that if we play our best game, it’s not really going to matter what they do on offense or defense. It’s up to us to dictate the tempo of the game.” 

With Keating leading the way, Michigan should expect that tempo to be fast — really fast.