By Pat White, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The No. 16 Penn State men's lacrosse team (6-3, 2-0 CAA) is beginning to look like a well-oiled machine coming off a dominating 11-3 road performance against Bucknell on Tuesday.
During a rollercoaster stretch to begin the season, Penn State struggled to balance out its play as a team. If the offense was clicking, the defense would struggle. If the defense was shutting down the opposing defense, the offense would sputter. Head coach Jeff Tambroni's concern throughout the season has been second-half play.
In the victory against Bucknell, it all seemed to come together. Tambroni said his team played the best 60-minute lacrosse game since the second game of the season in a win against Denver.
"In the second half our team did a good job led by our seniors and captains of just resetting the energy button," Tambroni said. "The second half has been our Achilles heel and our captains pulled the team together before the third quarter, and communicated to them with a very passionate speech. I thought they responded very well."
Finishing games strong has been a struggle for the Nittany Lions, especially on the offensive end. That trend changed with eight second half goals against the Bison, including five in the final stanza.
"The key was that they continued to grind through the course of the game and it finally broke through against a very talented Bucknell team," Tambroni said. "That is what we've been missing in several of the last few contests."
The defense also gave its best effort of the season. Freshman defender James Burke (Duxbury, Mass.) played a strong game, scooping two ground balls and causing two of the team's 14 caused turnovers.
"Our captains really kept the energy up going into the second half," Burke said. "For them to do that made it easier on us. It just kind of went through the team, from the kids on the field and on the bench."
Burke has added depth to the defensive unit as freshman, and is a key cog in the rotation. He said that the upperclassmen have helped him get acquainted with the system and more comfortable with the unit.
"We're just working off of one another well," Burke said. "We changed up some things here and there. Together as players we have built up together and created some chemistry on defense and it's really paying off."
The Penn State defense threw everything but the kitchen sink at Bucknell on Tuesday. They mixed in a nice variety of man and zone defense to shut down a prolific Bucknell offense. Junior goalie Austin Kaut (Morton, Pa.) was brilliant once again, making 14 saves and completing 18 of 22 clear attempts. Kaut has been the rock of the defense, but Tambroni credits his defenders for making Kaut's job easier.
"Austin has been more consistent as of late, but you can credit the whole defense," Tambroni said. "We have given up lower percentage shots for Austin to make saves. I hope it will be a momentum builder. So much changes from game to game. I believe our guys realize how important each day of practice is."
Penn State finishes up a daunting stretch of six games in 22 days on Saturday with a road matchup against Villanova (2-5, 1-0 Big East). Tambroni has been impressed with his team's poise and focus during the busy month of March with less practice time than usual.
"Not only have we played four games in 11 days, but we played three of them on the road at tough places to play," Tambroni said. "To the credit of our guys, they have handled it well, both the stretch and the travel. We would like to finish it off against Villanova."
Despite its record, Villanova is not a team to take lightly. All five of Villanova's losses were to ranked opponents and the Wildcats are coming off of an 11-10 victory over then-No. 4 Syracuse at home last weekend. Villanova has played six ranked teams so far this season and competed well in each contest.
Last season, Penn State defeated Villanova 13-8 in Happy Valley to improve to 15-3 all-time against the Wildcats. Although Penn State may be the better team on paper, Villanova is a dangerous team and will not be an easy opponent for Penn State.
Villanova features a high-powered offense that averages 10.14 goals per game. The Wildcats like to play an up-tempo game and have the offensive depth to do so. They are led on offense by Jack Rice and Mike Hart. Rice is the finisher on the attack with 14 goals, including two against Syracuse. Faceoff man Thomas Croonquist is winning 60.1 percent of his faceoffs and will give Danny Henneghan (Blooming Hills, Mich.) a tough challenge at the X on Saturday.
Penn State's offense faces a unique and aggressive Villanova defense. Although giving up 11.29 goals per game, the lack of practice time during the short week to prepare makes game planning difficult. Tambroni said he is focusing his team on playing Penn State lacrosse.
"We have a lot of respect for what they've done as a staff and a team," Tambroni said of Villanova. "We're trying to do the best we can in a short week of preparation to tie up the loose ends in the game plan."
The Nittany Lions will travel to Villanova on Saturday for a 7 p.m. faceoff.
Lions Finding Balance in All Areas of the Field
By Pat White, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
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