There’s no stronger source of motivation than the sting of defeat.
And when that defeat comes to end your season, in a playoff showdown against your bracket’s No. 1 seed, in only the second four-overtime game in your program’s history, that sting gets just a bit stronger.
Such is life for Penn men’s lacrosse, which ended its 2017 season on the wrong end of one of the most epic contests in the team’s 100 years of existence. But after coming up short in a 13-12 instant classic against eventual Ivy League tournament champion Yale, the bitter result has brought forward a silver lining for the Red and Blue — this time around, there will be no one hungrier for revenge.
“I think it put a little chip on our shoulder. It’s a tough way to lose and it’s one that stings for a while, so I think it definitely helped keep guys motivated,” said senior Kevin McGeary, who secured two goals and two assists in that historic contest. “When you have six or nine months until you play another game, it kept guys thinking about how it felt when that buzzer went off and we lost. People were hungry all offseason, just looking forward to getting another chance.”
Though fourth-seeded Penn didn’t get its ideal result against regular season champion Yale, the matchup was one that will be remembered forever in program lore.
In a contest that went back and forth the whole way, neither team led by more than two goals at any point, but Penn held a 12-11 edge in the final minute before Yale star Ben Reeves scored a game-tying goal.
From there, the overtimes became the Reed Junkin show, as the Quakers’ then-sophomore goalie made point-blank stop after point-blank stop to keep his team alive. But at a certain point, the Red and Blue’s bend-but-not-break defense couldn’t hold, as Reeves drew a double team and found an open Joe Sessa to send Penn home empty-handed.
“That one was crazy. Going to the end, that was probably one of the hardest fought games I’ve ever been a part of on both sides,” Junkin said. “Everyone was giving 100 percent the whole time. Looking at some of those seniors on defense, I could see how tired they were, diving at balls and stopping shots… that’s probably the highest energy game I’ve ever been in.”
Though the Ivy tournament loss to Yale was Penn’s most recent devastating defeat, chasing the Bulldogs is by no means a new phenomenon for the Red and Blue.
Yale has won each of the past three Ivy League tournaments, and over the past two seasons, Penn has gone 0-4 against the Elis, losing by a combined five goals. Two of the losses came in the Ivy semifinals, and one regular season loss came when Penn led 9-4 in the second half before collapsing late.
“Some guys have their team they dislike the most. So I’m sure for some of us — I know I’ve definitely thought about that game a lot,” McGeary said. “We’ve had not just that game, but we’ve lost two other overtime or one-goal games to Yale, and those have definitely stung the most, so I’d definitely say me and some of the other guys think about them a lot.”
Fortunately for the No. 16 Red and Blue, they return their top 11 scorers from last season. But on the flip side, the Bulldogs are bringing back just as much talent. No. 6 Yale returns four All-Ivy selections from last season, tied with Penn for the most in the conference, and the Elis look as strong as ever.
But as difficult as the task looks on paper, the Quakers will be fueled by 10 months of wondering “what if?” And this season, there will be no group more driven to turn those fantasies into realities.
“Since I’ve been here, we haven’t made it past that first round, so we always have a chip on our shoulders,” Junkin said. “We’ve kind of been in their shadow, and we think our team is very talented and can finally meet those expectations, so we gotta keep working hard, grind it out, and finally beat them.”