Entering last season's NCAA Tournament, expectations were sky high for Penn men's lacrosse. The team was coming off an Ivy League title with five wins against top 10 programs in the regular season, and defeats of No.1 Brown and No. 3 Yale in the conference tournament. The Quakers were seeded third, only behind Maryland and Georgetown.
But less than two weeks later, the dream came crashing down, as Penn was eliminated by Rutgers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Quakers had a lead in the fourth quarter, but then allowed five straight goals to the Scarlet Knights, allowing them to regain, and hold, the lead.
Coming off the field in Hempstead, N.Y. that day, the team was "upset [they] didn't put [their] best foot forward that day," senior long-stick midfielder BJ Farrare said. "It's tough to see those seniors leave the field after that knowing it was a lot of those guys' last game."
The team is using the disappointing result to its advantage, though, as last season's finish has given the team a sense of unfinished business. Coach Mike Murphy noted that throughout the offseason, this hunger to avenge the defeat handed to the team by Rutgers has been apparent throughout the team, with many athletes putting in extra work on the field or in the weight room.
"I think [the athletes] know that we can be very good if we put the time and work in," Murphy said. "[The athletes] own that process individually and collectively, so I think that extra work has really been a demonstration of that belief and that desire."
Winning the program's first national championship would be especially important to senior midfielder Sam Handley, who chose to return to Penn for his fifth year. Handley missed nearly all of two seasons due to a spleen injury and the COVID-19 pandemic, making last year his first full campaign since his freshman year in 2019.
Handley also picked up national recognition this year, being named a preseason first-team All-American by Inside Lacrosse. However, this is nothing new for the 6'5" midfielder from Portland, Ore., who was named Freshman of the Year and First-Team All-American following the 2019 season. Since that season, though, perspective has only strengthened Handley's play.
"That lesson taught me that, you know, as quick as the fame and accolades can come, just as quickly they can go," Handley said. "It's a team game. If I don't have great teammates around me and if we're not a great team, then none of those accolades would have come my way."
Murphy also praised Handley's ability to look past the individual accolades and see through the noise, describing his immense mental maturity and capacity to work through challenges.
With the accolades and the statistics — Handley led the team with 73 points last year — comes increased attention from opposing defenses. Yet when asked about it, Handley shrugged it off, saying "some teams like to try to tee off on me, but, whatever."
The target on Handley's back can actually benefit the team, according to Murphy. With extra efforts given to guarding Handley, other players go undefended and are given the opportunity to score.
Handley won't have to wait long for one of his most personally impactful games of the season. When the Quakers open their season at Georgetown on Feb. 18, he will face off against former teammate Tucker Dordevic. The two were teammates from third grade through high school, and Handley said it would be extra special to share the field with him.
Georgetown, who enters the year ranked third in the nation, opens an incredibly tough schedule for the Quakers, with matches against top-10 Ivies Cornell, Princeton, and Yale. While the high-ranked opponents give more room for losses that could threaten Penn's standing nationally, Murphy wouldn't have it any other way.
"I think if you take weeks off, at some point that will catch up to you," he said. "You never really let your guard down when you have a schedule like this and that's the way we want to play."
Navigating a schedule such as Penn's will require nothing short of the consistent, comprehensive excellence as Murphy preaches, but it should also bring out the best in this Quaker team. For a team whose only goal is hoisting a trophy on Memorial Day weekend, a high level of play couldn't be more essential.