It goes without saying, but Penn men’s lacrosse will not be sneaking up on anybody anymore.
The Quakers (2-1) completely forfeited that underdog status and the advantages that come with it when they defeated No.1 Duke 10-9 in a frenetic, evenly matched game at Franklin Field last Saturday.
Punctuated by senior Kevin McGeary’s third tally of the day with three minutes left, the now- No.14 Quakers shocked the Blue Devils (4-1) and completed an epic three-goal, fourth-quarter comeback.
The momentum gained from such an important victory will be put to use right away because Penn’s schedule does not relax whatsoever following a showdown with the nation’s premier program.
In fact, with games against Penn State, Navy, and Villanova all in the span of a week, it can be argued that Penn’s schedule is only just starting to heat up.
That being the case, coach Mike Murphy and the rest of the Quakers will have to carefully balance just how much they take away from the Duke win.
"The challenge to battle the confidence and exuberance that we had coming out of Duke with a little bit of humility and hard work and remembering the process that got us to that point is a delicate balance," Murphy said. "We want to feel good and to build on it, but we don't want to feel too good to the point where we start skipping steps."
According to McGeary, the players in the locker room recognize the challenges ahead and refuse to let their past accomplishments distract from their focus.
“Everyone was obviously really excited about the win, but we constantly talk about moving on to the next game," McGeary said. "You can take the lessons you learned from the game, but you should approach every game the same way. We always talk about being humble warriors.”
Even still, Saturday’s performance is undeniably cause for optimism going forward into this weekend and eventually into Ivy League play.
For instance, senior face-off specialist Chris Santangelo won 15 of 22 draws, including 6 of 8 in the fourth quarter to provide the Red and Blue with the possession advantage necessary to deny Duke’s high-octane offense the ball. After winning only 9 of 22 face-offs in Penn’s loss to reigning-champion Maryland on Wednesday, Saturday’s results were encouraging.
“[The face-off] is very matchup-related.....Certain matchups are better for us than others, and I think the Duke matchup favored us and it favored Chris,” Murphy said. “Last year the Penn State guy, [Gerard Arceri], got after us pretty good so we need to be prepared for that.....Chris has to be ready to make some adjustments with his move and his counter moves and things like that.”
Additionally, McGeary appears to have taken even another step forward from his strong junior season, proving that he can contribute heavily even against the best teams in the league. But according to him, that improvement is owed to his teammates.
“I’ve definitely worked hard, but I think our team is as good as we’ve been since I’ve been here,” McGeary said. "We have a ton of talented guys on the offense, so we're hard to game plan against. We also really focus on being unselfish, so we get a lot of open looks, which makes my job of shooting the ball a little bit easier."
Finally, in a game featuring Tewaaraton front-runner Justin Guterding of Duke, Penn senior long stick midfielder/close defenseman, Connor Keating stood out as the best player on the field. He assisted on two goals, including the game-winner to McGeary, and his ability to scoop up ground balls in traffic gave Penn possession at crucial times.
“He’s a very unique talent that you don’t see very often as a defenseman,” Murphy said. “He wins his matchup, and he's as good of a stick-handler as most other teams' attackmen. He’s very much a weapon that we would want to use both offensively and defensively.”
The Quakers will rely on the production of Keating, Santangelo, McGeary, and others when they face Penn State on Saturday. The Nittany Lions (2-2) just fell out of the top 20 with a loss to Robert Morris last weekend, but, led by offensive stalwarts Kevin Hill and Mac O’Keefe, this team is no less dangerous than the one that defeated the Quakers last season.
“The seniors are 1-2 against them in our career so we’d love to even the score against them this week,” McGeary said.
After the Penn State game at Franklin, the Quakers will travel to Maryland on Tuesday to take on the Naval Academy (2-2), a team that Penn defeated last year. However, last year’s squad was without star midfielder Casey Rees due to injury. This year, he’s back, giving the Quakers another new wrinkle with which to contend.
Finally, to conclude spring break, Penn will battle No.7 Villanova (4-0), a team that has already beaten Penn State and Ivy favorite, No.11 Yale this year. Led by attackmen Christian Cuccinello and Danny Seibel, Villanova has proven that it can win in a myriad of ways. The Wildcats took down Penn State in a high-scoring shootout, and against Hofstra, they won a grueling defensive battle. Such versatility makes them especially dangerous.
If the rankings hold by next weekend, Villanova will be the third top ten team that Penn will have faced already this year.
“We’ve always tried to schedule the best teams we can play, and we do that for a number of reasons” Murphy said. "One, playing teams like Duke, Maryland, and Villanova better prepares us for our Ivy League games....two, games against good teams help us to build a case for the NCAA Tournament, and lastly, it's a lot of fun."
If the Quakers can continue to play like they have so far this year, that fun will only continue.