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Feb. 8, 2012
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Following a five-win improvement in 2011, preseason No. 17 Penn State men's lacrosse looks to build off a 7-7 campaign that saw the program reach the Colonial Athletic Association semifinal round for the first time. Despite suffering a heartbreaking loss in the league playoffs, the Nittany Lions are poised to make even greater strides in head coach Jeff Tambroni's second season.
"I think in the first year there's an excitement of new beginnings, but there are the challenges of relationship building, teaching a new system and, for the guys, understanding and learning a new system," said Tambroni. "In the second year, you're going back into routine. We know each other a lot better in terms of expectations and personalities. I think we're going to be a much better prepared team earlier in the season."
The 2012 Nittany Lions will feature a veteran group, including eight starters from last year's squad, which will look to qualify for its third NCAA tournament appearance in program history. Among the returnees include six players who received end-of-year conference laurels, including two-time All-CAA First Team honoree Matthew Mackrides (Newtown Square).
Mackrides, along with fellow seniors Ryan Link (Englewood, Colo.) and Ryan McGarvey (Lower Gwynedd), will serve as captains for the 2012 season. Mackrides is the first two-time captain since a trio of Nittany Lions held the role during the 1996-97 seasons.
"I think each of our captains provide something different but together they provide great camaraderie and chemistry at the top," said Tambroni, who was named 2011 CAA Co-Coach of the Year. "We've also established a leadership cabinet that's compiled of seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen. They're excited to set a standard that's potentially never been done before at Penn State."
Penn State will open the season against sixth-ranked North Carolina in Kennesaw, Ga., Feb. 11.
With all three starters - senior Jack Forster (Jenkintown), Mackrides and sophomore Shane Sturgis (Downingtown) - returning from a season ago, the attack unit boasts a great deal of experience for the Nittany Lions. Sturgis, who was named to the CAA All-Rookie Team, led the team with 34 points (18g, 16a), while Mackrides ranked second (30) and Forster was tied for third (15).
Forster will enter his fifth season with the Nittany Lions after losing both the 2008 and 2010 seasons due to injuries. He bounced back in 2011 with 14 goals and one assist and will be looked for greater leadership in his final season.
"As you look at Jack Forster coming back from a knee injury, he was a little limited last year," said Tambroni. "He's an extremely respected leader of our team and has shown great persistence staying another year to compete and play."
In addition, sophomores Gavin Ahern (Rockville Centre, N.Y./) and Steve Aitken (Wayne) and freshmen Pat Manley (Arnold, Md.) and Bryan Gerrato (Rockville Centre, N.Y.) will also be relied upon for secondary scoring.
"I think from top to bottom, we have what we believe will be a formidable attack unit," Tambroni added. "I'm hoping the productivity of that group will propel our offense into a whole different category and take some pressure off our defense."
After utilizing a young group of midfielders a season ago, the Nittany Lions will enter the 2012 season with a core of veterans who will propel a much-improved midfield unit. With a mix of key returners and a fresh group of newcomers, the coaching staff expects higher production from the unit this season.
"We have a lot of returners who played considerable minutes and a group of players who played several minutes together so we're hoping the chemistry and productivity will increase," said Tambroni. "We have a lot of players to choose from and it's a matter of finding two units that can give us a one-two punch that is needed in the offensive end."
Leading the way for Penn State on the offensive side will be junior Nick Dolik (Bloomfield Hills, Mich.), who tallied 13 points (11g, 2a) a year ago en route to All-CAA Second Team recognition. Classmates Drew Roper (Columbus, Ohio) and Kyle VanThof (Penfield, N.Y.), both of whom played significant minutes during the 2011 season, will also add leadership to the unit.
In addition, sophomore Tom LaCrosse (Canandaigua, N.Y.) will be relied upon to provide strong play and leadership as a two-way midfielder.
"Our two-way midfield play will be an important facet to our offense and defense this year," Tambroni stated. "Tom plays with such tenacity and will be an important leader for that unit."
The Nittany Lions will also use a combination of freshmen and attackmen to fill in the gaps, including newcomers Kyle Baier (Auburn, N.Y.), Riley Lasda (Ithaca, N.Y.), Erik Myers (Del Mar, Calif.) and Kyle Zittel (Eden, N.Y.), who have quickly acclimated to learning the team's system and will battle for time on the first two midfield units.
After losing several key contributors from a season ago, Penn State will look to a largely inexperienced group on defense.
"We lost quite a bit of veteran personnel and we have our hands full in creating some chemistry and a lineup that understands the defense," Tambroni said. "As we move into the spring, a lot of different people played a lot of minutes in practice and competitive scrimmages.
McGarvey will anchor the group at the long-stick position and, along with sophomores Kessler Brown (Springfield, Va.), Ryan Mullen (Hatboro) and Ryne Sternberg (Toronto, Ont.) and freshmen JP Burnside (Garden City, N.Y.) and Jack Donnelly (Toronto, Ont.), will form an athletic, intelligent and disciplined group.
One of the strengths of the defense will be the Nittany Lions' short-stick unit, which will feature Link, junior transfer Travis Crane (Parkville, Md.) and freshmen Michael Richards (Skaneateles, N.Y.) and Taylor Stothoff (Sparks, Md.).
Following a sensational freshman season, Austin Kaut (Morton) will once again stand in net for the Nittany Lions. In 2011, the USILA Honorable Mention All-American earned All-CAA First Team and CAA All-Rookie Team recognition and garnered the conference's Rookie of the Year award. The Morton, Pa., native also led the NCAA in save percentage (.635) and saves per game (13.64) and ranked 10th in goals-against average (7.90).
"I'm not sure we could have asked any more of a freshman in terms of leadership, ability, save percentage and the role he played within the clear," said Tambroni. "We hope he'll continue to grow and become more of a leader on defense, helping all our newcomers to grow under his guidance. We're very optimistic that he'll grow as a leader and player, and provide the same amount of impact he had last year."
The Nittany Lions will face a challenging schedule in 2012 with five of their eight non-conference opponents ranked in the USILA preseason top 20.
"Our staff attempted to prepare this year's schedule because we believe in our team and we believe in the preparation it will provide," said Tambroni. "When you play against a team that is traditionally in the top 10, you can set a barometer about the standard that needs to be set. It will make them battle-tested and, as long as you can weather the storm, provide great confidence."
Penn State will be immediately put the test when it opens the season against sixth-ranked North Carolina Feb. 11.The Nittany Lions will also host matchups against No. 5 Denver (March 10), No. 10 Villanova (March 31) and No. 12 Bucknell (March 27). Penn State will visit No. 9 Notre Dame Feb. 26.
In conference play, Penn State will face four preseason ranked teams, including No. 11 Massachusetts (March 17), No. 14 Hofstra (April 28), No. 19 Delaware (April 21) and No. 20 Drexel (April 7).