(Photo Courtesy of Penn State Athletics)
The 2021 season wasn’t kind to the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Just two years removed from their first-ever Championship Weekend appearance, Penn State churned out a 4-7 record this spring, marking their worst season under John Tambroni and worst since going 2-11 back in 2010.
Already married to a conference-only schedule under Big Ten rules last season, the Nittany Lions also dealt with multiple injuries that saw them trot out a multitude of different players each week, especially during the middle of the season, and made such a schedule even more difficult at times. And on top of that, the Penn State offense was trying to find the right buttons to push following the graduation of program great Grant Ament.
But 2021 is in the rearview mirror. And while the likes of Mac O’Keefe, Gerard Arceri, Nick Cardile, Colby Kneese, and other key contributors over the past few seasons may be gone, this is still a Penn State team with a roster talented enough to possibly compete for a Big Ten title.
Make no mistake about it, enduring as much loss as the Nittany Lions following this season is rough, especially in the Big Ten. However, much of the Nittany Lions’ youth showed just how talented they are last season, and that should be a very good sign, along with the veterans they bring back and bring in, that 2022 will have a much different feel to it in Happy Valley.
Following the 2020 season, Penn State lost the program’s all-time career assists (191) and points leader (284) in Grant Ament. He is also the NCAA’s all-time career assists leader. Following the 2021 season, they lose another player at the top of the Penn State and NCAA record books in Mac O’Keefe, who scored more goals (213) than any other player before him. While Ament and O’Keefe, as well as Dylan Foulds and multiple other key members of that supporting cast, are now gone, this Penn State offense still looks to have the talent to get it done at a similar level as we’ve seen before. The faces are just newer, and a bit younger in some respects.
Senior attackman TJ Malone (25G/18A), who led the Nittany Lions in points last season and has been a starter since his freshman campaign, and midfielders Dan Reaume (8G/4A), a redshirt senior, and Jack Kelly (6G/4A), who returns for a fifth season, are the top returning veterans for this Penn State offense. All three had very strong campaigns in 2019, combining for 103 points, but haven’t quite gotten back to that level of production since. Leading the way this spring, the trio of veterans will be looking to do just that.
Surrounding the aforementioned three, the Nittany Lions also return a top-five scorer in junior attackman Jackson Reynolds (5G/7A), as well as sophomore attackman Mark Sickler (5G/7A), who was the team’s sixth-leading scorer last season as a freshman. Reynolds saw six starts in eight games while Sickler saw nine games of action with seven starts. Additionally, redshirt sophomore attackman Canyon Birch is expected to make a pretty decent jump this season. A high-profile recruit coming out of high school, Birch played in the final four games of the season after returning from injury with starts in the final three at attack, which included a two-goal outing in a comeback win over Michigan.
While the Nittany Lions certainly have some talented players returning on the offensive end of the field, coordinator John Haus will also have some new talent to work with this spring as Penn State brings in a very talented freshman class that is highlighted by
Penn State also went into the transfer portal and grabbed former Richmond midfielder, Tate Gallagher. Returning to his native Pennsylvania after a career with the Spiders that saw him thrice be named captain, Gallagher could take on many roles with the Nittany Lions this spring. He started his career on the offensive end, tallying 31 points in two years (2018, 2019) as a starter. Gallagher moved to short-stick defensive midfield this past spring and thrived, scooping up eight ground balls, causing five turnovers, and scoring two goals while helping lead Richmond to their seventh consecutive conference title game appearance. He racked up second team All-SoCon honors as the SSDM spot.
Whether Gallagher is put to work on the offensive end, defensive end, or both, he can certainly be of use and value to Tambroni’s squad this season.
Defensively, Penn State hasn’t been the strongest as a team in the Big Ten over the past few seasons. However, while the stats might not show it – especially this past season -, progress has been made. But the question is, will that progress be sustained with the loss of the Nittany Lions’ top pole in Nick Cardile, as well as primary starter in cage, Colby Kneese?
Penn State returns a trio of close defensemen who saw significant time last season in junior defenseman Sutton Boland (28G/6A), senior Brett Funk (12GB/4CT), and fifth-year returnee Brayden Peck (9GB/4CT). Funk played and started in nine games last season, Peck played in nine games with eight starts, and Boland saw time in eight contests with five starts. Additionally, junior LSM Sam Sweeney (13GB/8CT) returns following an impressive sophomore campaign in which he was second on the team in caused turnovers as one of the Nittany Lions’ most impactful poles.
In cage, Penn State’s top returning goaltender is Aleric Fyock. The redshirt junior saw action in five contests last season, which included two starts against Ohio State and Johns Hopkins late in the season. He posted a .526% save percentage off 41 saves. While Fyock might look to be the front-runner in the race, freshman Jack Fracyon could put up a strong battle for the starting job. The freshman was a highly sought-after prospect and had a solid showing in the Under Armour All-American game this summer.
After being second-to-last in the Big Ten in scoring defense last season (13.37 goals allowed per game), Penn State does lose talent, but still has the right amount of talent, at least at the top, to continue to progress on the back end. However, how high of a ceiling this unit has, especially under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Murphy, is a big question coming into 2022.
At the faceoff dot, the Nittany Lions lose another program great in Gerard Arceri. He leaves Happy Valley as the program leader in both faceoff wins (893) and ground balls (577). Replacing Arceri will be perhaps the toughest task this spring for the Nittany Lions this spring, simply because it can’t be done. However, Jake Glatz does return for a fifth season of college lacrosse and should pick up the pace as the team’s primary option. He went 30-for-63 (.476%) as a backup in 2021.