2021 NCAA Lacrosse Preview: No. 4 Penn State (Men)

PHOTO BY RICH BARNES

After averaging four goals per game last spring, Mac O'Keefe currently ranks seventh in NCAA history with 192 goals.


College lacrosse is back. As perhaps the most anticipated season in NCAA history approaches, we’re featuring every team ranked in the Nike/US Lacrosse Preseason Top 20.

Check back to USLaxMagazine.com each weekday for new previews, scouting reports and rival analysis.

No. 4 Penn State

2020 Record: 5-2
Pre-COVID Ranking: 6th

 

Dylan Foulds won the 11th-annual Penn State Men’s Lacrosse Turkey Trot on Nov. 28. It was the fifth year in a row he broke the proverbial tape first. Coach Jeff Tambroni called it a “landslide” win. That’s something Nittany Lions fans have gotten used to the past three seasons.

The dominant performance by Foulds, a sixth-year attackman from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, who registered 46 goals in 2019, was one of the few similarities during a fall that Tambroni, who enters his 11th year as the head coach in Happy Valley, described as different than anything he’s been a part of as a player or a coach. The current roster of 51 is the largest he has ever overseen. The team’s level of interaction ran the gamut from smaller pods to full practices to a couple weeks of zero in-person activities after a COVID-19 infection on the team.

Beyond anything, the pandemic has crystallized the essence of sacrifice for Tambroni.

“It really put each and every one of our staff and each and every one of the guys on our team at a crossroads to decide, how important is this in your life?” he said.

Tambroni used the word “blessed” four times in about a minute when describing Penn State’s current leadership group. He also noted the biggest challenge coming into the fall — apart from the ever-present uncertainty — was creating chemistry within that top group to unite them, provide established roles and offer the entire team a consistent direction. 

At the center are offensive and defensive captains, Mac O’Keefe and Nick Cardile, respectively.

Nike/USL Preseason Top 20
Team Previews

1. Duke 2. Syracuse 3. Maryland 4. Penn State
5. Virginia 6. North Carolina 7. Denver 8. Yale
9. Cornell 10. Notre Dame 11. Georgetown 12. Ohio State
13. Loyola 14. UMass 15. Army 16. Lehigh
17. Richmond 18. Penn 19. Rutgers 20. Johns Hopkins

Cardile, a second-team Inside Lacrosse All-American in 2020, forced eight caused turnovers and scored two goals in five games.

O’Keefe’s resume speaks for itself. He has established himself one of the best shooters in the college game, if not the world. A fair share of his 192 career goals, which leave him just 20 shy of the NCAA Division I record, came off Grant Ament assists. The duo drew comparisons to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson when Penn State made its first ever NCAA final four in 2019 and had the top-ranked scoring offense in the country.

Though the Nittany Lions return seven of their 13 seniors from 2020 — including starters Colby Kneese, Gerard Arceri and TJ Connellan — Ament, a fifth-year senior in 2020, decided his time in a Penn State uniform had run its course and graduated.

“Thank you,” he titled the Instagram post in which he announced the decision. The Premier Lacrosse League Rookie of the Year, who was selected first overall in the college draft by Archers LC, finished his collegiate career with 280 points and 189 assists, both Penn State and Big Ten career records.

“Obviously we get a lot of the attention, but in my opinion, we have nine All-Americans on the offense,” Ament said in between signing autographs on a frigid afternoon last February after he set the Penn State career points record during a 19-10 win at Villanova Stadium. “We've got a lot of talent, and it’s really fun when everybody gets in the scoring column.”

Penn State returns veteran depth at almost every position. Midfielders Jack Kelly and Jack Traynor both registered double-digit goals in 2020. Kneese has started between the pipes since he was a true freshman. Arceri, an All-American faceoff specialist, ranked best in the Big Ten in ground balls per game last spring and set the program career record. TJ Malone, who is listed at attack but ran out of the midfield most the past two years and, like Ament, attended The Haverford School (Pa), scored nine goals in the final two games of 2020 alone.

What’s notably absent are a surplus of graduate transfers.

“You want to invest in your team and your guys first,” Tambroni told US Lacrosse Magazine’s Justin Feil last November. “You’re just trying to make sure that when you’re thinking about that extra year, there’s your guys and then guys that might be coming from other programs that might be looking for another year elsewhere. We’ve tried to invest homegrown.”

O’Keefe was the first senior to inform Tambroni that, if afforded the opportunity, he wanted to take another run with the Nittany Lions. “I’m coming back,” he told Tambroni while sitting in his office last March even before the NCAA granted the extra year of eligibility to spring student-athletes.

“That’s a huge domino when you have a leader in someone as polarizing as Mac comes back,” Tambroni said. “It really did affect a number of the positive decisions that our guys made to come back and be with Mac and be around the rest of the team.”

While it’s easy to be enamored with O’Keefe’s elite prowess shooting the ball — Tambroni called him the best shooter he’s ever coached — it’s the totality of his game and his effort that makes the biggest impression on the Nittany Lions coaching staff and increases their optimism heading in 2021 despite Ament’s graduation.

“He is an extremely selfless teammate and it probably is a little bit surprising based on the nature of what he does,” Tambroni said. “The other side of Mac that I think goes probably understated at times is his effort and the level of compete that he puts on the practice field every single day. It certainly does not go unnoticed.”






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TOP RETURNERS

Nick Cardile, D, Gr.

The three-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week stepped into more of a leadership role after four year starter Chris Sabia, now of the PLL’s Waterdogs, graduated in 2019. The transition was evident when Sabia awarded Cardile the number 16, which is worn in memory of late Penn State goalie Connor Darcey, who died in a car crash in 2015. Cardile will don 16 again this spring. 

Colby Kneese, G, Gr. 

The Dallas native has started all but one of the 54 games he has played at Penn State and ranks third in program history with 575 career saves. 

Mac O’Keefe, A, Gr. 

After averaging four goals per game last spring, the three-time All-American currently ranks seventh in NCAA history with 192 goals. With each game this spring, the 15th overall selection in the 2020 NLL Draft will further cement his place in the record books. Fun fact: Since offensive assistant John Haus’ arrival in 2017, every single offensive starter at Penn State to graduate has signed with a professional lacrosse team.

KEY ADDITION

Mac Costin, M, Fr. 

A transfer from Utah who still has four years of eligibility, Costin scored 11 goals in six games for the Utes in 2020 and was a US Lacrosse All-American his senior year at The Haverford School (Pa.) when he scored 38 goals and added six assists. 

ENEMY LINES

“People are going to find out that, as good as Grant Ament was there's a lot more behind what's making Penn State successful. People think it's going to be a drop-off for Grant. I suspect that offense will be hitting on a high level very quickly based on the parts they have coming back. Defensively, they're stronger than people realize. Then they got some key guys back.”

“They’ll be different, but they'll still be great. That’s one of the best coaching staffs in the country, with the best shooter in NCAA history, probably. Last year, you're looking at one of the best feeders of all time combined with one of the best shooters. Maybe it won't be like that, but they've got a lot of good players. They’re going to be plenty scary.”

NUMBERS GAME

20

Goals that separate Mac O’Keefe from the Division I career goals record of 212, set by Duke attackman Justin Guterding in 2018. 

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