(Photo Courtesy of Penn State Athletics)
The Penn State Nittany Lions have been rising to prominence ever since Jeff Tambroni’s arrival ahead of the 2011 season. And in 2019 the Nittany Lions finally arrived. Putting together their best season in program history, Penn State churned out a 16-2 record and made their first-ever Championship Weekend appearance, where they lost, 17-21, against Yale.
And while that Yale loss was heartbreaking for the Nittany Lions, they had never experienced such a high in lacrosse before and all signs pointed upward. 2020 was supposed to be that next step. With Grant Ament challenging for the Tewarraton and the Nittany Lions challenging for the Big Ten and national titles once again, 2020 could have been the year of Penn State. But due to the Coronavirus outbreak, the college lacrosse season was cut short.
Penn State went 5-2 before the season was cut short. Their only two losses came against a No. 3-ranked Yale squad by two goals and against a No.7 Cornell squad on a last-second goal in what many would argue was the game of the year.
While the Nittany Lions had their chances cut short in 2020, they look to be just as dangerous in 2021 and are certainly the favorites to win the Big Ten once again. But there will be one key figure missing that has been a complete game-changer for this Nittany Lions squad. That one figure is Grant Ament. The star-studded attackman opted to not come back for a fifth season and has already made his mark in the PLL.
Losing Ament means losing 44 points (13G/31A) from the 5th-best scoring offense in DI last season. And while the Nittany Lions won’t be able to replace him and there are questions are surrounding how this offense can operate without Ament and his elite passing ability, the cupboard is far from bare in Happy Valley, especially on the offensive end.
Penn State returns four of their top five scorers from last season, which includes two grad students who are returning for a fifth season. Mac O’Keefe (25G/7A) is one of college lacrosse’s most dangerous shooters and is the Nittany Lions’ top returning scorer. It is his show now and he will have to take this offense by its horns and run with it. And there is an abundance of confidence that he can do just that and be the guy for this Nittany Lions squad.
Outside of O’Keefe, the Nittany Lions will return junior attackman TJ Malone (11G/6A) and senior midfielder Jack Kelly (12G/2A). Additionally, attackman Dylan Foulds (10G/2A) will be back for a fifth season. The Port Coquitlam, B.C., native is somewhat of a jack of all trades and has been somewhat of an x-factor for this Penn State offense over the past few seasons.
In addition to having playmakers all over the place on the offensive end, the Nittany Lions will have an absolute game-changer at the faceoff dot. Gerard Arceri has been one of the best faceoff men in not only the Big Ten but the nation. He went 72-for-141 (51%) at the dot last season.
Defensively, the Nittany Lions saw a good amount of improvement from 2019 to 2020. They ranked 32nd nationally in scoring offense in 2019 and ended the shortened 2020 season tied for 29th in that category, allowing 11 goals per game, and looked to be on track to possibly end the season in an even better spot. And with the amount of talent they return on that end in 2021 they should see further improvement on that end, which has certainly been a weak spot for them at times.
Colby Kneese will be returning for a fifth year and will be anchoring that Nittany Lions defense in cage once again. A four-year starter, Kneese has been the most consistent player on the back end for the Nittany Lions and proven to be one of the best goalies in the Big Ten and nationally. He posted a 51% save percentage last season.
Furthermore, Penn State returns both defenseman Nick Cardile (7GB/8CT) and defenseman/LSM TJ Connellan (3GB/3CT) for a fifth season. A consistent presence and a full-time starter for the first time in 2019, Cardile missed two games with an injury last season. Connellan has shown the ability to play both close and LSM and is expected to be an impact player again this spring.
In addition to those two, Brett Funk is the only full-time starter returning at close defense from last season. He recorded six ground balls and two caused turnovers as a first-time starter last season and should take another step forward in 2021.