With all of the excitement of Spring Fling, Tiger Woods' Masters win, the NBA and NHL playoffs, and Game of Thrones this past weekend, certain things might have gone a bit under the radar.
Don’t let Penn men’s lacrosse be one of those things.
After dismantling Harvard, 26-13, on Saturday, the Quakers clinched a share of the Ivy League title for the first time since 1988 and continued their ascent up the national polls, currently sitting at the No. 5 spot on Inside Lacrosse’s Division I Media Poll.
With another win next weekend in their home finale against Dartmouth, the Red and Blue would claim the outright Ivy title in a historic season that very few people could have predicted.
In the preseason, prognosticators made it abundantly clear that they didn’t expect all that much from Penn this year. With Yale returning much of its 2018 NCAA Championship-winning roster and Cornell and Princeton each headlined by first-team All-American attackmen, Penn was pretty much an afterthought in the Ivy League and picked to finish fourth.
But after a slow start to the season that included three losses to the current top three teams in the country, the Quakers have been busy proving doubters wrong, winning seven games in a row and currently holding the nation’s longest active winning streak.
Included in those seven games were three matchups against the teams picked ahead of them in the conference, and while the Yale and Cornell games went down to the wire, Penn defeated Princeton handily, proving its merit as one of the few elite teams in that nation.
Spurring the charge for the Quakers this season has been a healthy mix of internal improvements and an influx of new faces.
On the internal side, senior captains Tyler Dunn and Simon Mathias have fully embraced their leadership roles, as evidenced by their willingness to defer for the sake of team prosperity.
With 31 points on the year, Mathias ranks third on the team after leading Penn in scoring his sophomore and junior seasons. Although the ball is in his stick less than in previous years, he has remained the steadying force for the Quakers on attack, and his ability to beat his man from behind the goal is unparalleled on the team.
Dunn's impact on team success has only grown as he continues to play all over the field, whether it be on the face-off wing, on defense, or in the offensive half. Perhaps no greater encapsulation of his play can be found than his heroic one-man clear and then buzzer-beating goal against Yale to force overtime and an eventual Penn win in March.
Goldner has always been a talented scorer, but this season, he has been more lethal than ever. From the high crease, he is perhaps the most dangerous shooter in the country, as his combination of soft hands and lightning-quick release have translated to 39 goals on the year.
Evanchick’s stardom can be found on the less glamorous end, as he has established himself as one of the top covermen in college lacrosse. Tasked each week with guarding the opposition’s best attackman, Evanchick has been exceptional. His play against Yale’s Jackson Morrill particularly stands out, but his excellence has been consistent throughout the season.
After finishing last season with a save percentage below 50 percent, Junkin has put together his best year to date, upping his percentage to 53.4 percent and laying his body on the line each game.
Still, the improved play of Penn's returning players cannot fully explain the team's rise. In order to provide the full picture, one must examine the contributions made by a plethora of newcomers.
Junior face-off man Kyle Gallagher transferred to Penn after playing his last two years at Hofstra, and the on-field impact he has made is remarkable. Last year, the Quakers faced-off at only 46 percent, playing nearly every game at a severe possession disadvantage. This season, that narrative has flipped, as Gallagher has won nearly 61 percent of his draws and importantly established himself as a worthy adversary for Yale’s T.D. Ierlan, one of the greatest face-off men in college lacrosse history.
In addition to the junior transfer Gallagher, Penn has gotten enormous contributions from its freshman class.
Long-stick midfielder BJ Farrare is lightning in transition and a vacuum on the ground, infusing dynamism into Penn’s transition game, and attackman Dylan Gergar has established himself as a skilled and important complementary scorer already.
However, the headliner of the class thus far has undoubtedly been Sam Handley. The big, athletic midfielder has added an element that the Penn offense has been missing for years. His ability to dodge downhill has opened up the entire playbook for the Quakers. He is a matchup problem in every single game, and opposing teams have yet to find a way to stop him. Handley’s combination of dodging prowess and uncanny passing skills consistently puts defenses in an impossible position. Do they slide to him and risk a skip pass for an easy assist, or do they let their defenseman guard him one-on-one and concede a bullet shot with either hand?
Handley’s 23 goals and 20 assists are outstanding numbers not just for a midfielder or even for a freshman — those are All-American numbers. If Handley continues his play, he’ll garner serious end-of-year recognition, and if he progresses throughout his career, he might become the best offensive player Penn lacrosse has ever had. Seriously.
But of course, the more immediate concern is this season, one that is quickly coming to a close. The Quakers have already made it one to remember, but you can’t remember it if you miss out. So I suggest to any and all Penn sports fans: Start tuning in to what Penn men’s lacrosse is doing. It’s pretty special.
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