By Jeremy Falls, Assistant Director of Penn State Strategic Communications
The Nittany Lions return to the grandest stage in collegiate lacrosse for the first time since a similarly talented, yet underdog-type outfit, upset a national power along the way to crashing the NCAA Semifinals.
What wasn't known then, as Penn State made its ninth semifinal appearance in the then 18-year history of the NCAA Tournament, was that it would be 17 years for the Nittany Lions to reemerge as one of the final four teams standing.
Seventeen years later, another Penn State women's lacrosse team awaits a semifinal game as the Nittany Lions take on No. 3 North Carolina on Friday at 5 p.m. in Chester, Pennsylvania.
On that 1999 team, senior captain and three-time IWLCA All-American Jen Johnson (1996-99) would help lead her squad to Homewood Field, site of that year's NCAA Championship Weekend. Johnson and her teammates enjoyed certain traits all championship-caliber teams encompass.
"I think we had a very tight knit team," Johnson said. "We had a lot of great chemistry on and off the field and I think that helped our success. We had a lot of talent."
Another alumna, B.J. Johnson (nee Lucey), was a freshman on the team and remembers a similar kinship.
"We had a lot of fun, we got along very well," B.J. said. "We had some characters like JJ (Jen Johnson). It was a very happy, fun team. We played really well together. It truly was a group effort from goaltending all the way up to attack."
One thing B.J. has a hard time processing is how fast time has gone by.
"I can't believe it's been 17 years," B.J. said laughingly. "I don't think I'm that old. I saw that on Twitter and I said, 'I think I'm going to vomit.' It feels like it was 17 minutes ago."
Dialing the clock back, Penn State had to travel to Princeton in a quarterfinal matchup for the right to reach the 1999 semifinals. The Tigers were able to force overtime late after a few Penn State missteps, but it was the Nittany Lion seniors who stepped up and prevailed in a 9-6 overtime win.
That was a very exciting game," Jen Johnson added. "It was close the whole time, we made a couple mistakes down the stretch, but we ultimately did what we needed to do to secure the win. That was a very good Princeton team. We just played at a really high level to keep it going and not have it be our last game."
This year's team possesses many of the same characteristics of that 1999 team: a talented bunch that relies on senior leadership and had to overcome a heavy favorite along the way. The Nittany Lions downed No. 2 Florida on the road in the second round, while the 1999 team took down Princeton, who went on to win the 2002 and 2003 national titles.
Johnson served as a head coach at the University of Vermont for the past 12 seasons and is able to assess Penn State's accomplishments as both an alumna and a coach.
"They've been really fun to watch," Jen Johnson noted. "They're just really impressive. I think they have a lot of skill and a lot of athleticism and speed. I've been really impressed with their confidence in key moments."
A volunteer assistant at Rutgers, B.J. Johnson might know the team as well as any graduate of the program. She not only coaches against this current team as a Big Ten foe, but after graduating in 2003, Johnson returned to Happy Valley as an assistant for four seasons (2007-10).
"This is a little bit of an unlikely team,' B.J. stated, noting that this year's team wasn't as highly ranked as the 2015 team that fell in the quarterfinals. "They're playing well at the right time and they're doing everything they need to do. They have this great opportunity and it shows how hard it truly is and how special to be among the last four standing at the end of the year."
Both B.J. and Jen have been rallying their teammates from that special 1999 team and others to support the squad on Friday night in Chester.
"I think they have a great shot of going the whole way," Jen Johnson said. "I'm really excited to be there first hand. I'll be bringing my parents. This is big, not just for the alums, but the parents. It's a reunion for them as well. I'm expecting a huge, huge turnout."
"We're getting tailgating stuff together," said B.J. Johnson. "Purchasing tickets and getting t-shirts made so we can all be together. That's all we want, is to have one, big happy group of Penn Staters."
As for the task at hand, Penn State faces a potent North Carolina side that is seeded third and ended the Nittany Lion season a year ago in Chapel Hill. Friday may see more of the Penn State Blue & White in the stands and a Missy Doherty-led squad is ready to embrace that challenge.
"To be able to represent our fans and alums in the final four in Philly is an awesome thing," Doherty noted.
As for any home-field advantage, Doherty expects to have one.
"I would hope so. We are Pennsylvania's team so we're looking forward to that advantage and making our Pennsylvania residents and our Penn State fans proud our team and our program. Hopefully everyone will be close by on Friday night."
One thing is for certain, Doherty and her charges have already made the alums before them proud of this team. Jen Johnson heaped praise on the sixth-year head coach.
"I think she's a great person, a great leader," Johnson said. "She's done a great job recruiting and I think she has two great assistants in Amy (Altig) and Brooke (Matthews). I think she's done a really good job with this team and I've been really impressed with what I've seen on film."
Jen Johnson went on to add what it means that Penn State gets to play in its home state.
"I've spoken to a lot of Philadelphia-area alums and colleagues and everyone is rooting for Penn State because people are happy to see what a great job Missy has done and a new team in the mix."
As for whether this team can reach Sunday's national championship game, it would be an achievement unto itself.
"It would be incredible," said Jen Johnson. "I think it's definitely something that can be done, they have the talent. They showed it by almost upsetting Maryland."
She went onto add there's something a little special of a potential championship game matchup as well.
"We (the 1999 team) lost to Maryland in the semis, and we'd love to see a Penn State-Maryland final on Sunday and for PSU to knock off Maryland."
Nevertheless, if things don't go Penn State's way Friday night, all of Nittany Nation will have full support.
"I'm a proud Penn Stater win, lose or draw," B.J. Johnson added. "And I bleed Blue & White and I always will. This is super special."