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Senior defenseman Connor Keating may look comfortable with a long stick in his hands now, but just a few years ago, he was playing a completely different position.

Credit: Ananya Chandra

Without a doubt, Penn men’s lacrosse’s Connor Keating is one of the sport’s brightest stars. Not just in Philadelphia. Not just in the Ivy League. Period.  

Operating for the last three seasons as a long stick midfielder, Keating has been deservedly shrouded with honors. He’s been an All-American. He’s been All-Ivy. Earlier in March, he was even named to the official 50-player Watch List of the Tewaaraton Award, annually given to the best player in college lacrosse. 

He really is that good, even if nobody saw it coming.  

When Penn coach Mike Murphy first saw Keating play as a high schooler, he was a more traditional short stick midfielder buried on the depth chart of The Haverford School, one of the best high school lacrosse programs in the country. 

In Keating’s own words, he didn’t really have an identity as a lacrosse player at the time.

“I wasn’t really that good to be honest. I was on JV actually until my junior year. I didn’t even make the varsity until I switched to long pole.” 

Still, even as a self-described “average short stick” stuck on the junior varsity, Keating demonstrated enough potential to capture coach Murphy’s eye, even if Murphy and his staff weren’t fully sold on his abilities. 

In fact, the main reason that the Penn coaching staff kept tabs on Keating at all was the fact that coach Murphy had a good relationship with the Keating family. 

“To be honest, I really wanted to recruit him, knowing that he was a good athlete and a good kid from a good family,” Murphy said. “The problem was that he just never quite did enough offensively to warrant us recruiting him, and so I said to his brother and to his high school coach that I thought that he could become a pretty good long stick [midfielder]. I obviously didn’t know that he’d become what he has become, but I figured it was worth a try.”  

On the advisement of both the Penn coaches and his coaches at The Haverford School, Keating embraced the position change. 

“At the time, I was open to any suggestions,” Keating said. “I trusted that [coach Murphy and his staff] knew what they were talking about it. They’ve seen more lacrosse than anyone. I’m glad that coach Murphy suggested it too because it’s been great for me.”  

A few weeks after advocating for the position change, Murphy watched Keating play as a long stick midfielder for the first time at a tournament in Baltimore. While his positional play still lacked polish, Keating performed well enough to earn an invitation to one of Penn men’s lacrosse’s recruiting clinics in the fall. 

It was at this clinic where the fate of a future All-American’s career hung in the balance. And even after the position switch, the path to convincing the Penn coaching staff that he was worthy of a roster spot wasn't a smooth one.

“At the clinic, I was really impressed by his growth, but he was a little rough. Technically, he didn’t really know how to play defense yet," Murphy said. "Not everyone was sold. Some of our coaching staff didn’t think that he was very good, and in some ways, they were right."

Fortunately for the entire Penn men’s lacrosse program, the staff took a risk and offered an unpolished, still-developing long stick midfielder a spot on the team. 

And, as the old adage goes, the rest is history.  

In the subsequent years, Keating would hone his craft and earn a starting spot on Penn’s team as a freshman, a far cry from his days as a high school sophomore unable to make Haverford’s varsity team. With 29 goals, 38 points, 165 ground balls, and 25 caused turnovers, Keating has established himself as arguably the best two-way player in the nation.  

“He’s the best long stick middie in the country now,” Murphy said. “But at the time we were recruiting him, none of us could have seen it coming.” 

That being said, with his college senior season about to begin, it was time for Keating to make one more switch. This time, less for his individual benefit and more for the sake of his team. 

With the graduation of 2017 starters Kevin Gayhardt, Kevin McDonough, and Eric Persky, the 2018 Quakers had some serious holes to fill at close defense, and so, the staff turned to the team’s best player for help.  

“I knew that the team might need some help at that spot,” Keating said. “The switch from long stick midfielder to close defenseman was something that the coaches approached me about. They felt that it was what the team needed, and I’m always willing to do whatever the team needs to succeed.”  

And so, as a senior All-American, Keating has made yet another successful position change, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by his coaches. 

“To make the switch, as the high-caliber player that he is, that just tells you the kind of kid he is,” Murphy said. “He’s really selfless and committed to us. He’ll do whatever we need him to do to help us win.”  

According to Keating, the selflessness and commitment that he shows are simply reflective of the support of his coaches and teammates.  

“These coaches are awesome,” Keating said. “They work with me all the time, and they’ve taught me really quickly, so that I can keep getting better at it.” 

Even more praise was heaped upon his teammates, as it was obvious from Keating’s energy and voice how thankful he is for the work that they have put in to help him become the player that he is — first as a long stick midfielder and now, as a close defenseman.  

“My teammates have helped with the transition tremendously,” Keating said. “I try to learn as much as I can from every player. Each guy on the team has a distinct skill set that I can learn from.” 

Specifically, Keating attributes most of his success to Penn’s scout team, the group of players that rarely sees action during games but practices every day against the starting defense, mimicking the formations and characteristics of Penn’s next opponent.  

“The guys that have been most helpful to me as far as learning the new position have really been the scout guys,” Keating said. “Guys like Kyle Scheetz, Drew Robshaw, and Nolan Munafo come out here at practice everyday and play attack and dodge against me everyday. These guys don’t often get recognized in terms of accolades or even playing time, but they work as hard as any of us. I have been beyond fortunate to play with and against all of those guys this year."

In this, his final season, you can bet that Keating will savor each and every one of his relationships with his teammates and coaches, all of whom have helped him and all of whom he has helped right back.