In 2019, one of the most impressive individual seasons by a Penn men’s lacrosse player of all-time was authored by one of the most unlikely sources.
As a freshman, midfielder Sam Handley racked up accolades from his incredible season. He also set rookie records in goals (35), assists (26), and total points (61), which was also good enough for fourth-most points in a season in team history.
Handley impressed with his huge gaudy numbers in his first season, but his story is deeper than just being a star lacrosse talent. Originally, Handley didn’t even play lacrosse growing up. Only after constant badgering from his grandfather, who was a college lacrosse player himself, did Handley make the switch from baseball.
Handley also hails from Oregon, a state not known for its competitive youth lacrosse scene. In fact, lacrosse is only just beginning to rise in its West Coast popularity. Only three players on Penn’s team grew up west of the Rocky Mountains. Despite how popular lacrosse is there compared to the East Coast, Handley sees improvement in the proliferation of young athletes picking up the sport.
“It’s definitely a lot smaller out here, but every year it grows a little bit more,” Handley said.
In high school, Handley was a two-sport athlete, starring on the basketball team as well. With that background, Handley feels he has a leg up when it comes to excelling as a college lacrosse player both as a player and a student of the game.
“I think basketball and lacrosse are intertwined a lot in terms of the physicality and plays,” Handley said.
Handley’s experience in basketball has been especially valuable in helping him pick up offensive concepts more quickly, as the movement of a lacrosse team in the offensive third is very similar to that of a basketball team’s half-court offense.
As much as Handley’s freshman season explosion surprised Penn lacrosse fans, he himself was also shocked by his success.
“Coming in, I never thought that’s how my season would go,” Handley said. “I surprised myself; I didn’t really expect to win all of the awards that I did.”
Despite all of his individual success, the Quakers experienced a bittersweet season in 2019. After losing the first three games to highly competitive nonconference opponents, the team rattled off 12 wins in a row, going undefeated in conference play including wins over Brown and Yale in the Ivy League Tournament.
In the NCAA Tournament, the Quakers' dream season came to an end when they matched up with the Bulldogs in the second round for the third time that season. Handley grew familiar with the Elis over these matchups but wasn’t able to bring home the victory in a brutal 19-18 overtime defeat.
“It’s definitely hard to beat a good team three times in a row,” Handley said.
Going into last year's season, Handley still had more to prove in trying to become a national champion. Unfortunately, he only played one game before suffering an injury, and he never saw the field again in 2020 after the season ended prematurely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I wanted to come back last season. I tried to do everything that I could,” Handley said.
Handley remains optimistic about the prospects of a season happening in 2021 and has kept grinding on the field and in the weight room back home, as well as in team Zoom meetings. Despite the challenges of being away from his team, Handley is keeping a positive outlook.
“Zoom eventually gets old, but I think our coaches have done a pretty good job of keeping us engaged and being thorough in the meetings,” Handley said.
Although his college lacrosse career hasn’t gone completely as planned, Handley thinks he can build off of his freshman year success and maybe even play professionally someday.
“I think I would definitely like to play professionally for at least some time,” Handley said. “I have to make it there first, but that would be cool.”
One thing that may be driving Handley toward that goal is a massive chip on his shoulder, coming so close to a national championship as a freshman and losing most of his sophomore season to injury. Through all of the adversity he has faced, does Handley still carry that around with him every day?
“Yes. Most definitely.”