The wait is over.
After a five year drought, Penn men’s lacrosse is back in the NCAA Tournament, and the entire sport has been put on notice.
With a 6-0 regular season Ivy League record, an Ivy Tournament championship, and an active 11-game winning streak, the Quakers are not just postseason participants. They’re legitimate contenders.
As the No. 4 seed, the Red and Blue (11-3, 6-0 Ivy) earned the right to play on Franklin Field one more time this season when they host Army on Saturday.
The Black Knights (13-4, 5-3 Patriot) and the Quakers make for an exciting matchup on paper, as Penn has the country’s third-best offense with 14.86 goals per game, while Army’s defense surrenders an average of only 8.35 goals, good for second in the nation.
All season long, the Quakers have relied on the balance of their offense. Between freshman Sam Handley, junior Adam Goldner, and senior Simon Mathias, Penn has three players with over 50 points on the season. Beyond those three, the contributions pour in from a plethora of options, as six other players have scored in double digits with a few more on the cusp.
Each and every one of those scoring options will be needed against the formidable Black Knights defense, led by probable All-Americans Johnny Surdick and AJ Barretto.
Barretto, the goalie, sports a save percentage of .591, good for third in the country. Surdick, one of the nation’s top defenders, has had success against the best offensive players in college lacrosse, holding potential Tewaaraton winner Pat Spencer to a single assist in Army’s Patriot League Tournament win over Loyola.
As such, head coach Mike Murphy and the rest of the coaching staff have been heavily preparing for the Black Knights’ schemes, tendencies, and weaknesses, looking for any and all advantages over such a strong defensive unit.
“We have the utmost respect for Army’s defense,” Murphy said. “They’re very well-coached. Surdick is really good. I actually think that all of their defensive players are really good, both short sticks and long sticks. The goalie is excellent as well. There’s a reason that they’re one of the top two or three defenses in the country.”
As much as the Quakers’ coaching staff is poring over film on Army’s defense, the Black Knights’ coaches are undoubtedly doing the same for the vaunted Penn attack, led by Mathias.
In the past five games, the senior captain has amassed 27 points, dodging strong from behind the cage, scoring timely goals, and finding his teammates open on the crease.
According to Murphy, Mathias’ growth as a player is most apparent in his ability to read the game and understand when he needs to take over or when he is better off deferring to a teammate.
“He picks his spots,” Murphy said. “He knows when the big moments are coming up in games, and that’s when he really asserts himself. He’s certainly playing chess, not checkers.”
When asked about his recent dominance, Mathias shrugged off the praise and instead pointed to team success.
“As long as I keep playing hard and keep taking what the game gives me, I think that our offense is going to continue to play extremely well,” Mathias said. “I’m not sure if I’m playing the best lacrosse of my career, but our team definitely is, and that’s all that matters.”
That team success, according to both Murphy and Mathias, stems more from what happens in the locker room than what spectators see on the field.
Murphy specifically points to Mathias as being an exceptional leader whose off-field contributions somehow dwarf his enormous on-field presence.
“[Mathias] has really asserted himself as a leader too, and that’s what most people don’t see,” Murphy said. “We have a lot of really valuable pieces with Reed [Junkin] in the cage and Tyler [Dunn] at the midfield. But none of it is more valuable than [Mathias] because he affects every other piece so much with the way he keeps the team moving, with the messaging, and things like that.”
For Mathias, it’s all about the senior class that has worked incredibly hard to get to this point: from starting the season with an 0-3 record to hosting a postseason game on Franklin Field.
“This is what we work for. We work pretty hard every day, every week for about eight to nine months. It definitely means a lot to play one more at Franklin Field, especially to this senior class,” Mathias said. “From top to bottom, this class has taken ownership of the team and has driven the team in the direction we’re heading.”
Based on the team’s recent play and strong leadership, that direction is assuredly up.
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