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John McGonigal | Centre Daily Times | May 9, 2019

Why Penn State men's lacrosse could capture its first-ever national title

Penn State's diving O'Keefe headlines men's lacrosse top plays

Art Athens — a professional speaker and former United States Marine — visited and spoke to the Penn State men's lacrosse team earlier this spring about short-term and long-term focus, about maintaining daily discipline while never losing sight of what lies ahead.

The Nittany Lions, now the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, took that message to heart.

MLAX TOURNEY: Press release | Interactive bracket | Printable bracket

"The chance to win a national championship, the chance to be in a Final Four, the chance to win a playoff game, the chance to win a conference championship — it's important to remind yourself the direction that you're going," Penn State head coach Jeff Tambroni said Wednesday afternoon. "It's deep down inside holding that vision, and just saying, 'Man, if we do this on a daily basis, anything is possible.'"

Four wins away from the program's first-ever national title, Tambroni's Nittany Lions have acted on that idea —that anything is possible.

Penn State (14-1) is in the midst of a stellar season. The Nittany Lions blew through the Big Ten slate, capturing their first regular-season conference crown before securing the B1G tournament title over the weekend. Trailing Johns Hopkins at halftime in the championship tilt, Penn State rallied, and it was Mac O'Keefe's overtime snipe that sent the Nittany Lions into delirious celebration at HighPoint.com Stadium.

The Nittany Lions' first goal -- winning their first Big Ten title -- is in the bag. Next up is capturing the program's first NCAA tournament win, which could come against either Marist (10-6) or UMBC (6-8). The two sides play Wednesday night for the right to face Penn State's No. 1-ranked scoring offense Sunday afternoon at Panzer Stadium. Should the Nittany Lions advance, they'll face the winner of No. 8-seeded Loyola and Syracuse the following Sunday in Connecticut.

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Penn State isn't looking past Marist or UMBC. But everyone in the East Area Locker Rooms, from Tambroni to O'Keefe, is confident in the Nittany Lions' chances to reach the Final Four in Philadelphia and make program history.

"Going into the summer, we all had the same mindset of wanting to start something special here. We had the pieces to do that," O'Keefe said. "And everyone came back ready to go."

That mentality translated to the turf from the get-go.

The Nittany Lions won their first three games of the regular season by a combined 61-21. In a dominant victory over Robert Morris, Penn State set a single-game program record for goals scored (27). O'Keefe guided the Nittany Lions' offense with five goals, getting off to a fast start to an eventual historic season. The junior has netted 60 goals this year, the first player to do so in program history.

However, following that three-game winning spurt to open the campaign, Penn State lost its first and only contest: Away at Yale. The Bulldogs, now the No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, triumphed 14-13 after Penn State mounted a late comeback.

"That was probably our best learning experience throughout the course of the year," Tambroni said. "Taking our team on the road in a challenging environment, being down several goals, finding a way to come back and losing a disappointing game, we got back on the bus and our coaching staff felt like, 'OK, this was a good test for our team.' We were proud of the way we competed, and we could build off of it."

BRACKET TAKEAWAYS: Yale's path to defending its title won't be easy

The coach added that the team leaders -- O'Keefe, Grant Ament, Nick Spillane and more -- were back in the building two days later, making sure the Nittany Lions were "still pointing in the right direction." They were. Penn State hasn't lost since.

From March 2 to this past weekend, the Nittany Lions have won 11 straight and established themselves as the top offensive power in college lacrosse. As a team, Penn State averages 17.33 goals per game and 10.47 assists per game, both of which ranks No. 1 in the country.

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That effort is spearheaded by Ament and O'Keefe, who rank first and sixth nationally in points per game, respectively. Ament's 78 assists -- a single-season NCAA record -- play a significant factor in that tally.

But it's not just O'Keefe and Ament getting the job done. Ament said teams have tried to key in on O'Keefe and take the goalscorer out of rhythm. But that leaves openings for Dylan Foulds (42 points), Spillane (41), Jack Kelly (37) and TJ Malone (35). "We wouldn't be where we are without those guys," O'Keefe added.

Thanks to O'Keefe, Ament and company, the Nittany Lions are realistically eying a trip to the Final Four. And after a conference slate full of firsts, Penn State is within reach of attaining more postseason goals.

MORE LACROSSE: Rankings | Stats

"This is uncharted territory. It's not like we've been here before," Tambroni said. "But they're more comfortable now with the unknown than any team I've ever been around. There's a consensus of belief, whether they've seen it or not."

Added Ament: "And I don't think we've played a perfect game yet." 

This article is written by John McGonigal from Centre Daily Times and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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