After a historic 2019 season in which Penn men’s lacrosse captured the Ivy League regular season title, earned the Ivy Tournament crown, and finished one overtime goal away from the NCAA Final Four, the Quakers are back and ready for more.
Penn enters the season as the No. 6 team in the country, according to the preseason Division I Media Poll, and fans and pundits alike are excited to see how the program builds off its most successful season in recent memory.
Although most names from that 2019 squad will return to the field this spring, several key players have been lost to graduation. Attackman Simon Mathias, midfielder Tyler Dunn, and goalie Reed Junkin were all four-year contributors for the Red and Blue whose impacts went even beyond the box score. Losing them could demand an adjustment period.
But this year's team is still teeming with talent at all positions.
With Mathias departed, the attack unit will be headlined by senior captain Adam Goldner. As a junior, Goldner paced the team with 56 goals and finished fourth in the nation in goals per game. His lightning-quick release and ability to shoot for corners ambidextrously make him perhaps the most dangerous scorer in the country from the high crease.
However, Goldner preaches that the 2020 season is a new year, and as such, his role will be different and more expansive.
“I’m trying to raise all aspects of my game, whether that be carrying the ball or shooting,” Goldner said. “I’m not necessarily going to be just an off-ball goal-scorer. I need to take on a leadership role this year as well, being more vocal, stepping up, and taking ownership of the year as a whole.”
Joining Goldner at attack will be junior Sean Lulley and sophomore Dylan Gergar. Operating from behind the cage as well as dodging from the wing, Lulley put together an impressive sophomore season, tallying a balanced 19 goals and 17 assists. He could very well take over the quarterbacking duties manned last year by Mathias.
As a freshman, Gergar proved to be a crafty crease finisher with 17 goals in limited action, but head coach Mike Murphy asserts that he’s even better behind the cage than he is inside, raving about his athleticism and the pressure that he can put on a defense. Additionally, Murphy is excited about the unit’s depth, noting that highly ranked freshman Robert Schain could see some run as well.
At the midfield, Penn is led by star sophomore Sam Handley. With 61 points last season, the 6’5” Handley was a First-Team All-American as a freshman, and his unique size and skillset added a layer to the Penn offense that it hadn’t had in years. Handley’s ability to dodge, pass, and shoot with both hands is unparalleled nationwide, and scarily enough for the rest of the Ivy League, he might not have even scratched the surface.
“Physically, he’s better than he was last year,” Murphy said. “He’s gotten faster and stronger, and he’s put on 12 or so pounds. As a team, we’re playing faster too, which only benefits [Handley]. His IQ is extraordinarily high, and he processes things quickly, so even though he looks deliberate when he plays and when he leans into somebody, he’s even better when he plays fast because he knows what to do with the ball before he gets it and makes it really tough for the defense.”
When asked how he can improve upon last year’s incredible performance, Handley emphasized that any credit for his individual success goes to his coaching staff and teammates. Handley specifically pointed to junior midfielder Mitch Bartolo, who tallied 24 points last season and often creates matchup problems for opposing defensive midfielders.
On the defensive end, seniors Mark Evanchick and Kyle Thornton return, as do their complementary skillsets. Evanchick should once again be tasked with guarding the opponent’s top dodging attackman, while Thornton quarterbacks the slide packages and vocalizes the defensive calls. Fellow senior Matt McILwrick joins them from the defensive midfield, giving the Red and Blue an experienced, talented unit on the less glamorous end of the field.
With the season fast approaching, the goalie situation has yet to be resolved. According to Murphy, senior Alex deMarco and sophomore transfer Patrick Burkinshaw were equally impressive in the fall.
“We’re fortunate. We probably have two goalies playing better than any two we’ve had in the past,” Murphy said. “Right now, I honestly don’t know who our starter is going to be.”
Another key returner for the Quakers is senior face-off specialist Kyle Gallagher. After transferring from Hofstra for his junior year, the All-American changed the complexion of the 2019 season, winning 62.5% of his draws and going toe-to-toe with Yale star senior TD Ierlan in their three matchups. His ability to consistently win draws benefits the Red and Blue greatly, allowing them to maintain their own scoring runs and halt any runs from their opponents.
Speaking of opponents, Penn’s 2020 schedule, just as it was a year ago, will be among the most grueling in the country. The Quakers’ first three games will all be against teams ranked within the top seven by the Media Poll, including a showdown with No. 1 Penn State as the Red and Blue's home opener.
According to Murphy, the difficulty of the schedule has multiple benefits, including demanding attention to detail from his players, bolstering the team’s resume for the NCAA selection process, aiding in recruiting, and adding to the fun, competitive atmosphere of the season.
“There’s really no downside to doing it,” Murphy said. “I mean, obviously you want to win every game, but our goal is not to go undefeated or to be perfect. Our goal is to continually improve to see where we can end up in May.”
League play won’t be much easier, as the Ivy League should again be among the top conferences in the country. Battling the Quakers for supremacy will be No. 3 Yale, led by one of the best attack groups in the country: Jackson Morrill, Matt Brandau, and Matt Gaudet. That trio — along with Ierlan at the face-off and Chris Fake at close defense — makes Yale one of the favorites to win not only the Ivies but also the national title.
Adding to the depth of the conference are Princeton and No. 11 Cornell. The Tigers finished a disappointing 7-7 last season, but with Tewaaraton favorite Michael Sowers back for his senior year, this team could knock off anyone. As for the Big Red, they too are led by a superstar senior attackman in Canadian Jeff Teat. If Cornell improves defensively and at the face-off X, the team could make some serious noise in conference play.
As Murphy says, “beating the best teams is what good teams do,” so the Quakers are well aware of the challenges that lie ahead. The team’s first taste comes Feb. 15 against No. 4 Maryland.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.