How Sustainable Was Penn’s 2019 Season?

(Photo Courtesy of Penn Athletics)

In the 1980s, winning Ivy League titles and making NCAA Tournament runs were pretty normal at Penn. The Quakers finished either first or second in the Ivy League seven out of Tony Seaman’s eight-year stint. They also made the NCAA Tournament six of those seasons, losing in the Quarterfinals – which was the first round until 1986 – four of those times, making the semifinals once, and losing in the first round once. But that level of consistency seemed to leave Penn with Tony Seaman when he departed for the Johns Hopkins job following the 1990 season.

Penn would have three different coaching changes before they found themselves back in the NCAA Tournament under Brian Voelker in 2004 and 2006. Now under the leadership of Mike Murphy, the Quakers have seemingly crept back up that Ivy League ladder. And while it has been more of a consistent third and fourth-place team, the Quakers reached the top of the Ivy League and made their first NCAA Quarterfinal appearance since 1988, when they made a Final Four run.

Under Murphy, the Quakers have continually put together one of the toughest schedules in college lacrosse, especially over the past few seasons. And while it hasn’t always been friendly to them, the strategy has seemed to be a nice measuring stick and has eventually paid off at times. Perhaps that tough scheduling is one of the reasons Penn has only missed the Ivy League tournament once (2012) during Murphy’s tenure.

Are they more prepared than some of their Ivy League counterparts late in the season when they need to win games? That question doesn’t have a definitive answer, but the argument can certainly be made and has been in the past.

But one thing is for certain, they put all the pieces together in 2019 and rode that wave as long as they could. After losing to top-5 opponents Maryland, Duke, and Penn State to start the season, Penn strapped up their boots and went to work. They Beat 11th-ranked Villanova and then rolled through the rest of their schedule, which included taking down No. 2 Yale in triple overtime during the regular season and beating them, 12-11, in the Ivy League Championship game. That same Yale team would end their season in overtime in the NCAA Quarterfinals, capping one of the best single-season series in college lacrosse history.

All in all, it was the Quakers’ best season since the 1980s. But did that season mark Penn’s backness as a consistent top-tier Ivy League contender? That is a question that we still don’t have the answer to and, honestly, we may not get until 2022.

The Quakers came into the 2020 season as the No. 6 team in the nation and exited as the No. 16 team. They posted a 2-3 record before the season was cancelled due to the Coronavirus outbreak. Their two wins included a 14-11 victory over 10th-ranked Duke and a 13-12 victory over St. Joseph’s. However they fell to 2nd-ranked Penn State, 18-17, in overtime and lost to both No. 4 Maryland and No. 11 Villanova by two goals. They easily could have been 5-0.

Coming into the 2021 season the Quakers certainly do lose some key pieces from the last season that will be almost impossible to replace. However, they do return a heap of both experienced and young talent all over the field. That alone gives many the confidence that this spring might look similar, success wise, to 2019 for this Quakers squad.

Penn ranked 18th nationally in scoring offense last season, averaging 13.80 points per game. Each of their top five scorers from a year ago will be back in 2021.

All three of their starting attackmen will be back this spring. Juniors Sean Lulley (14G/16A) and Dylan Gergar (19G/4A) return after being the Quakers’ top two scorers last season. Adam Goldner (11G/5A) will be back for a fifth season and will be looking to add to his already impressive career. Senior Jack Schultz (4G/4A) and sophomore midfielder James Shipley (3G/2A), who were the Quakers’ fourth and fifth-leading scorers will also be returning this spring, as well as senior midfielder Mitch Bartolo (2G/1A). All three should make greater impacts this coming season.

Outside of their three starting attackmen, the biggest returner on offense for this Penn squad is junior midfielder Sam Handley. After a stellar freshman campaign in 2019, in which he earned First Team All-American honors from both the USILA and Inside Lacrosse, Handley only appeared in the Quakers’ opening game against Maryland last season before sitting out their final four games with an injury. Assuming he comes back strong and doesn’t miss a beat, Handley only makes this offense more dangerous.

Penn ranked in the bottom half of DI in scoring defense last season, allowing 14 goals per game. And while playing the 5th, 10th, and 11th-best scoring defenses in the nation certainly don’t help that stat, it is still very apparent that they weren’t the most impressive or polished unit last season. And coming into 2021, things look a bit foggy on that end.

LSM BJ Farrare (17GB/6CT) is a top-three player at his position. The Owings Mills, Md., native has one of the best motors in the game and is the heart and soul of Penn’s back end. It is expected that he will continue to play, at least, at the same level he has since he first stepped foot on campus as a freshman in 2019. He might Penn’s best one-on-one defender with the loss of both Kyle Thorton and Mark Evanchick at close defense.

The Quakers’ lone full-time starter at close defense is sophomore Peter Blake (7GB/5CT). He will have to step up this spring to help fill in the holes left by the exodus of Thorton and Evanchick. Jojo Biddle (7GB/3CT), who returns for a fifth season, both has a good shot at stepping up into one those two open starting spots at close defense after putting together a solid season in 2020. Senior Ben Bedard (2G/2A/5GB/2CT) looks to lead the way at SSDM again this season.

Junior Patrick Burkinshaw returns in cage and looks to anchor this defense once again. Transferring in from Virginia ahead of last season, Burkinshaw served as the Quakers’ full-time starter last season and posted a .449 save percentage.

Losing Kyle Gallagher at the faceoff dot is the biggest loss that this team will have to overcome in 2021. Transferring in from Hofstra ahead of the 2019 season, Gallagher was a huge piece of their 2019 NCAA Quarterfinals run and has been one of the best faceoff men in the nation throughout his college career. Penn will have to figure out the situation at the faceoff dot if they want any shot at having success in transition like they have the past few seasons. And if they don’t, they better have improved their six-on-six play on both ends, but especially on offense.

Senior Anthony Giuliani, junior Jamie Zusi, and sophomore Matt Palazzi are the Quakers’ three returners at the faceoff dot.

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