January 29, 2014

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#LMRanks: No. 8 Penn State Nittany Lions (MD1)

by Patrick Stevens | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | College Preview 2014

Austin Kaut is has been a rock for the Penn State defense the last three years. (Gray Quetti)

Previous: No. 9 Virginia Cavaliers

Vitals

2013 Record: 12-5 (6-0 CAA)
Coach:
Jeff Tambroni (4th season)
Record at Penn State:
28-18

Power ratings (scale of 1 to 5)

Offense: 3
Defense:
4
Goalie:
5
Faceoff:
4

Top Returner

G Austin Kaut (Sr.)
A first team All-America pick last season, Kaut could be the best goalie in the country again this season. "He's been very good, and that might be an understatement based on the last three years of his career," Penn State coach Jeff Tambroni said. "We have a lot of confidence when he's back there."

X-Factor

Faceoff specialists
Danny Henneghan, who took all but 29 of the Nittany Lions' faceoffs over the last three seasons is gone. Penn State has graduate student Cole Yeager (a Yale transfer), senior Ryne Sternberg and redshirt freshman Drake Kreinz in the mix for that spot.

"The emergence of any one or all three of those young men is going to make an enormous impact on either our success or inability to play the style we want to play," Tambroni said.

Tournament Trend

2009 Did not qualify
2010 Did not qualify
2011 Did not qualify
2012 Did not qualify
2013 First round

What's New?

While it didn't take advantage of the CAA tournament the last two seasons, the Nittany Lions did have a chance to play for an automatic berth the final weekend of the season. That isn't in place this because the CAA bans teams from its conference tournaments that have announced they are leaving the league. Penn State will be part of the Big Ten's first lacrosse season next year.

This spring, the Nittany Lions must take advantage of early-season opportunities; there is no safety net of a league tournament to fall back on in May.

Telling Number

0
All-time victories in the NCAA tournament for Penn State. Tambroni has brought the Nittany Lions far in his first three seasons, but the next step — winning in the postseason — will be a big one for this program.

Behind Enemy Lines

What rival coaches say

"Tough to find a weakness... Great defense, and continuing to improve offensively."

— Rival coaches

"Top returning goalie in the country in Austin Kaut. Tambroni's recruits are finally here and need to make a big splash... Can Kaut stand on his head again?... The zone defense in front of Kaut is strong. Tough to find a weakness... Great defense, and continuing to improve offensively."

"Jeff Tambroni has built a winning program at Penn State. After taking the prerequisite courses (a couple of years of recruiting and cultural changes), Tambo has his team poised to take the big challenge head on and make a run for the final four."

"What has been a huge asset for the turnaround of the program has been goalie Austin Kaut, the best keeper in the country. He has been a wall for three years and Kaut is prepared to do it again in his final season as a Nittany Lion."

"The offense is starting to hit its stride, with a combination of both young, such as T.J. Sanders, who had 44 goals as a freshman, and more experienced, like Shane Sturgis. He had a strong year in 2013, totaling 44 points on 27 goals and 17 assists while Tommy LaCrosse hit the net 23 times."

"A tough schedule will get the Nittany Lions ready for a run in May. Look for this squad to struggle early and build to success later in the year.

"TJ Sanders is a top-five player of the year candidate."

2013 Recap

In a Nutshell: The Nittany Lions were tested early, collecting a helpful early victory over Denver on a neutral field and then dropping three consecutive games to eventual NCAA tournament teams (Lehigh, Notre Dame and Ohio State) by a combined four goals. In all four of those contests, Penn State surrendered at least 10 goals, something that wouldn't happen again until May.

A 10-game winning streak followed, only for the Nittany Lions to get tripped up by Towson in the annual wackiness that is the CAA tournament. That setback didn't severely cost Penn State, which was granted the No. 8 seed in its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2005. It also marked the program's first postseason home game.

After building a four-goal lead over Yale at the break, Penn State was bounced from the tournament when it gave up nine goals in the second half of a 10-7 loss. It was a tough end to the year, but still provided something to build upon moving forward.

High Point: Just making the tournament was a breakthrough for the Nittany Lions, who just missed out on a postseason berth a season earlier. Penn State has methodically made progress under Tambroni, and an NCAA appearance was the next logical step. Selection Sunday, more than any single game, meant more to the Nits than anything.

Low Point: For a team that was 12-3 and more than two months removed from surrendering double-digit goals, the final two games were a bit deflating for the Nittany Lions. Towson won 11-10 at Penn State in the CAA final, and Yale came in a little more than a week later to secure a 10-7 triumph.

2014 Preview

Best Case: The projected starting lineup is littered with seniors, and that's especially true with a stout defense that figures to again rank among the nation's best. Goalie Austin Kaut is the sort of luxury nearly every team would be envious of, and he's the sort of talent who could carry a team on a long postseason run. After last year's disappointment against Yale, Penn State is better prepared for what awaits in the postseason.

The Nittany Lions look like the class of the CAA, and could find themselves on a long winning streak entering May. This time, they hold things together and collect the program's first postseason victory and perhaps even a second as Tambroni becomes the fifth coach (along with Dave Cottle, Jack Emmer, Tony Seaman and Bill Tierney) to lead multiple schools to the final four.

Worst Case: The Nittany Lions cannot quite figure out how to replace Jack Forster's scoring punch, and the loss of faceoff man Danny Henneghan is never entirely accounted for. With reduced offensive capability and less possession time as well, Penn State puts itself in position to lose a handful of 7-6 and 8-7 games at the wrong time and either is one-and-done in the postseason or fails to even get there despite a decent record.

Self-Examination: Jeff Tambroni on ...

LSM Steven Bogert (Sr.)
"I would say he's an extremely underrated player nationwide, but there's been plenty of days when we walked off the practice field and said 'He's our best player.' We've made that comment on a number of days because of the impact he has. He's an extremely driven young man with great athleticism. He's meant a lot to us, especially over the last year and a half. His junior year was a breakout season for him and provided us with a great deal of defense to offense."

M Tom LaCrosse (Sr.)
"Tommy's been in a lot of ways our identity. He plays a style that we've attempted to promote here since the he walked on campus. It's more of a blue-collar style of lacrosse. He's an extremely hard-nosed, hard-charging midfielder. He wears his heart on his sleeve at all times. In a lot of ways, not only in terms of production but also in terms of his character and overall style, in a lot of ways he's the face of what we want to be as a lacrosse team and a lacrosse program."

A T.J. Sanders (So.)
"Consistency would be one big thing. I think 45 goals or something like that is extremely impressive for a freshman season or for any season, but I think he realized after his freshman year how much he benefitted from Jack Forster and Shane Sturgis. There were also some days he was spectacular and some days he was just OK. That happened in practice as well as games. We've had plenty of conversations with T.J. He certainly realizes he has some shortcomings, and a key coming into this year is take another step in terms of his maturity on top of his production. He has absolutely filled in all the blanks there this fall and is prepared to take on a far greater role in the offense and with his leadership."

Lacrosse Magazine will continue its 2014 college lacrosse preview throughout January and into February, with team-by-team breakdowns of the top teams in NCAA Division I, II and III men's and women's lacrosse. Follow the countdown at LaxMagazine.com/LMRanks and on twitter at #LMRanks.


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