By Pat White, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The Penn State men's lacrosse team (10-3, 5-0 CAA) looks to close out a perfect record in CAA play on Saturday when it faces a dangerous Hofstra team (7-6, 2-3 CAA) on the road.
It is easy to point at the usual suspects on the Nittany Lions roster that have led to the current eight-game winning streak. Freshman TJ Sanders (Orillia, Ont.) and senior Jack Forster (Jenkintown, Pa.) have been stellar leading a Penn State offense that is averaging 10.38 goals per game. Junior goalie Austin Kaut (Morton, Pa.) has shown why he is regarded as one of the top net-minders in college lacrosse, leading a defense that surrenders 7.23 goals per contest.
Aside from the stars on the team, it has been the roles of the emerging midfielders and defense that have pushed Penn State to a level they weren't at in the beginning of the season.
In the 13-7 win against Delaware last Saturday, head coach Jeff Tambroni said that the second midfield line of juniors Kyle VanThof (Penfield, N.Y.) and Kyle Zittel (Eden, N.Y.) and senior Drew Roper (Columbus, Ohio) stepped up and asserted themselves in a big way. The trio combined for three goals and three assists in the victory.
"We were extremely pleased with the second midfield of Kyle VanThof, Drew Roper and Kyle Zittel," Tambroni said. "I thought they provided a much needed spark in our offensive end. They also provided balance and a lot of punch."
Offensive production from the midfield was a concern for the Nittany Lions through the first six games of the season. The attack carried a heavy load of the scoring, and Tambroni wanted to see more balance.
Penn State looks as dangerous as ever after capturing the No. 1 seed in next week's CAA Championship being held in Happy Valley, due in large part to the emergence of the midfield.
"I think guys are just working harder on the field," Roper said. "Certain midfielders are getting better and playing off of each other. Finally all the hard work is paying off on the field."
Roper's work, especially, has been a bright spot for the Nittany Lions. He struggled to see playing time in the beginning of the season. Tambroni said that the senior approached the coaching staff and asked what he needed to do to get on the field.
Tambroni said that it takes longer than a week to earn playing time. The tryout begins during fall practice and continues on through the season. His challenge to Roper was to change little things and work hard for a month.
"To Drew's credit he went to work every day for about a month," Tambroni said. "His true colors really shined during that time being a senior, being a leader. Drew has continued to be consistent in his efforts. This is his doing and deserves the playing minutes that he gets."
Roper said he took the challenge and ran with it. He worked hard to get on the field and his confidence playing with Zittel and VanThof has provided another weapon at Tambroni's disposal.
"The opportunity finally arose," Roper said. "I have great chemistry with Kyle VanThof and Kyle Zittel and we are working well together."
The efforts of the midfield are not unnoticed by the team. Sophomore defensive midfielder Michael Richards (Skaneateles, N.Y.) said that he has seen the growth of the midfield unit as the season has progressed.
"You can definitely see the chemistry is starting to build with our midfield," Richards said. "They know where passes are going to go and what the next guy is going to do so the ball is moving."
Despite the success coming down the home stretch of the season, the Nittany Lions know that there is still work to be done and cannot get complacent.
Penn State faces a dangerous Hofstra team that is much better than its 7-6 record would indicate. They have wins against No. 2 Notre Dame and then-No. 13 Fairfield, both on the road.
It is also a must-win game for Hofstra in order to make the CAA Championship next week and possibly face Penn State in the opening round. Saturday's game is Hofstra's senior night, providing an extra spark for the Pride.
"The situation that presents itself to Hofstra makes them a dangerous team," Tambroni said. "Knowing that either their season or career could end or to move on and secure their place in the CAA makes them an extremely urgent team."
Hofstra's offense is led by junior attacker Torin Varn, who has upped his point production from nine points in 2012 to 34 this season, tallying 32 goals. Sophomore goalie Chris Selva has been stellar between the pipes, yielding 7.10 goals per game.
Tambroni said that his team must bring the same intensity into the game that they have had all season. He said that both teams are treating it like a must-win simply because it is the next game.
"We talked to our guys about playing at their best level every game," Tambroni said. "The key is to control what you can control, which is how hard we play and how well we know our opponent. I do think at this level you need to study the tendencies of the [other] team...to give yourself the best chance to win."
Although Penn State has already clinched a share of the top seed in the CAA Championship, Richards said there is no looking forward to next week and the focus is on beating Hofstra.
"The No. 1 seed means nothing with one more road game to play," Richards said. "If they win, they turn around and play us again [in the CAA Championship]. Being 6-0 is a lot better than being 5-1."
Tambroni praised the way his team looks forward to the next game and not at the success of the current winning streak.
"They're on each other on a daily basis in terms of what's next," Tambroni said. "Any time you can have a chance to gain momentum, you gain confidence... I hope that is the way we prepare all week and I hope that is how we play on the weekend."
Penn State and Hofstra will face off at 7 p.m. on Saturday at James A. Shuart Stadium.
Midfield Consistency Key in Final Game vs. Hofstra
By Pat White, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
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