Resurgent Penn State Keeps Hopkins Win in Perspective


Penn State players celebrate after a 14-12 victory over Johns Hopkins, the Nittany Lions' first-ever win over the Blue Jays.

To Penn State head coach Jeff Tambroni, the significance of Saturday’s 14-12 victory over visiting fifth-ranked Johns Hopkins can’t be understated. But he said the Nittany Lions’ next task, as they prepare for a confrontation at Rutgers Sunday night, is to guard against overstating the meaning of such a signature win.

“Sure, you want your guys to look at a win like this and feel justified to feel really good about it. A win against a team like Hopkins can do a lot for your confidence and your program,” Tambroni said. “But if you start putting too much into it, if you start feeling too good about it, then it turns into a distraction. We have to make sure there is perspective about wins and losses, and we’ve had our fair share of each. Nothing is settled at this point.”

The 12th-ranked Nittany Lions, who had failed in their previous nine tries against the Blue Jays – and more recently were winless against them since Hopkins (and Maryland and Rutgers) brought lacrosse tradition and blue blood to the Big Ten when the six-team league launched in 2015 – made it a day to cherish in University Park.

Eight different players, led by attackmen Nick Spillane and Mac O’Keefe, scored as Penn State (8-4, 2-1) jumped out to an early three-goal lead, stretched it to six late in the first half and did not falter.

The Blue Jays (8-3, 2-1) lost for the first time in eight games, lost senior attackman and quarterback Shack Stanwick early to an apparent foot injury that could sideline him this weekend at Michigan, and trailed throughout the game’s final 53 minutes.

Behind sophomore Gerard Arceri – the game’s best faceoff man not named Baptiste (Denver) or Ierlan (Albany) – the Lions secured 18 of 29 draws. Sophomore goalie Colby Kneese made 14 saves.

In another chapter of rough-and-tumble competition in the Big Ten, the Lions, smarting from a one-goal loss to first-place and second-ranked Maryland a week earlier, earned a grip on second place in the league, one game behind the Terps.

In Piscataway, N.J., on Sunday, ninth-ranked Rutgers (8-4, 1-2) will try to atone for one-goal losses to Maryland and Hopkins.

Under Tambroni, its eighth-year coach, Penn State is righting itself at the right time, after catching an awful break in February. Two days before their season-opening loss to Villanova in overtime, junior attackman Grant Ament, Penn State’s offensive leader a year ago (30, 30a), suffered a right foot injury. He has yet to play in 2018.

In Ament’s absence, the Lions staggered early with a shocking 12-9 loss to Robert Morris on Feb. 24 that dropped them to 2-2. Two weeks later, their record fell to 4-3, following a 9-7 defeat against a much-improved Cornell team now ranked No. 8.

Tambroni said he isn’t sure if Ament will return in the near future or redshirt and come back in 2019 with two more years of eligibility. In the meantime, the Lions have answered the bell in Ament’s absence.

Tambroni subtracted midfield strength by moving junior Nick Spillane to attack. Spillane has worked some wonders with sophomore Mac O’Keefe, who set a single-season school record with 51 goals in 2017.

Spillane (18g, 26a), who burned Hopkins for two goals and five assists, has been an excellent facilitator. O’Keefe, who had a hat trick and four points against the Blue Jays, leads the Lions with 31 goals, but his 11 assists magnify the way he has altered his game as a ball carrier and feeder.

“I’m really proud of the evolution of this team and how they’ve dealt with adversity. I love the way they’ve just gone about their business,” Tambroni said. “There aren’t a lot of egos in the locker room. We don’t have a lot of standouts in the ‘elite [player]’ conversation. We’ve got great senior leadership, and we’ve never given up on the plan or on each other.”

With two weeks left in the regular season, the Big Ten’s four-team tournament picture could experience significant changes, as teams try to secure the highest seeds possible. Not even fifth-place Ohio State (6-6, 1-2), which plays at Maryland Sunday night and is in dire straits, is out of it yet.

“One week, you might feel good about yourself. The next week, you feel like it’s a must-win game,” Tambroni said. “The minute you start talking about packing your bags for a conference playoff game, everything changes. You can’t take a breath in this league.”

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