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the NCAA in scoring through Penn State’s first four games, with 24 goals. The 6-foot, 180-pound lefty, whose father, Brian, played for the NLL’s New York Saints, showed the same scoring prowess he displayed with the U.S. under-19 team over the summer in Canada. O’Keefe scored eight goals in a 17-12 win over Villanova, his fourth career college game.

Penn State senior captain Nick Aponte walked off the indoor turf at Holuba Hall beaming, excited to talk about what just happened and what may lie ahead. It hasn’t always been this way in Happy Valley. A pulse-pounding 14-13 win over fellow early-season top-10 program Penn in early March ran the Nittany Lions’ record to 5-0, their best start since the 1992 edition began 7-0. A tough Big Ten schedule, of course, still awaited them this month, but the identity of the 2017 version of Penn State Lacrosse was already taking solid shape through the season’s first five weeks. And it looked good, as in Division I’s second-highest scoring team, averaging more than 17 goals per game. Take a stockpile of returners — eight starters from 2016, including four seniors — mix in three uber-talented freshmen (one each in goal, at primary faceoff specialist, and attack) and you have a team dreaming, and perhaps expecting, a deep run into May. “There’s no better way I could write this up,” Aponte, a senior attackman, said in the moments after Penn State closed out the one-goal win over Penn. It was the type of nail-biter that’s been a bugaboo for them the last few seasons and a victory that kept them ranked inside the Top 5 in national polls. This story is what so many have anticipated since coach Jeff Tambroni left Cornell for Penn State after the 2010 season, three final four appearances in the previous four years in tow. While Tambroni guided the Lions to the NCAA tournament in 2013, the program has never won a national postseason tournament game in its 104 seasons of existence. But this year could be different. “The first few weeks, we saw how everybody played together and we really noticed that we could do something special this year,” said freshman attackman Mac O’Keefe, noting also that the nice start felt great, but “it doesn’t really mean anything until the end.” O’Keefe, the rare Long Islander with a box lacrosse background, led


Classmate Gerard Arceri (68.3 faceoff win percentage through five games), has given the Nittany Lions stability at his position that they didn’t have last season, when it won just 47 percent as a team. That shortcoming contributed to three straight one-goal losses last April, to Maryland, Johns Hopkins and Rutgers (the first two in overtime). Flip two of those results, and Penn State would have had 10 victories and a strong NCAA tournament case, instead of an 8-7 record. “Until you don’t have the ball a lot, you don’t really realize how much possession does matter, and I think we realized that last year,” said sophomore attackman Grant Ament, the Lions’ leading scorer in 2016 with 54 points. He was tied with O’Keefe for the team lead (28) in early March. Another freshman, Colby Kneese, took the starting goalie job from incumbent Will Schreiner three games into the season, a move whose significance is not lost on anyone involved with the program. Just last year, Schreiner took over between the pipes as the team picked up the pieces from the tragic death of rising senior goalie Connor Darcey, killed in a late-night rollover car accident in Boston in June of 2015. The Penn State locker room is now named after Darcey.

“That really hit our team hard,” Aponte said. “We were playing with a lot of emotion last year, and just didn’t make some plays. These last few years, it’s always been something.”

In 2014, the CAA levied a postseason ban on Penn State, because it would leave to join the Big Ten a season later. After a few non-conference losses, the lack of a route to the NCAA tournament via a conference championship automatic qualifying bid effectively dashed their season. The Nittany Lions finished 5-9 that first year in a new conference and dropped a double-overtime heartbreaker to Johns Hopkins. Penn State raised eyebrows and made national waves last spring by beating No. 1 Denver, but ended the season with a 16-9 loss to Maryland in the Big Ten semifinals.


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