Although founded as a varsity sport in 1921, men’s lacrosse at Penn State did not become a Division I sport until about 50 years later. For decades, the Nittany Lions were a program that circled the line of respectable but never was considered elite.
PSU made two NCAA tournaments in its first 40 seasons without winning a game.
Then, in 2010, Penn State turned to Cornell coach Jeff Tambroni with a commitment to turn the program into a winner. Tambroni had coached Cornell to eight NCAA tournaments in 10 seasons – including the Final Four in 2007, 2009, and 2010.
It was just a matter of seeing how things percolated.
Tambroni did not make his first NCAA field with Penn State until 2013, and the Nittany Lions lost in the first round. It was the same in 2017.
But 2019 has been like none other.
The Nittany Lions started 3-0 before losing to reigning NCAA champion Yale. They have not lost since and earned the program’s first No. 1 ranking.
As the top seed, they beat University of Maryland, Baltimore County for their first NCAA tournament win and advanced to the Final Four with a convincing win over Loyola (Md.).
PSU (14-1) will have rematch with Yale in a NCAA semifinal at 2:30 p.m., Saturday, at Lincoln Financial Field. Yale won, 14-13, in the regular-season game. Virginia will face Duke at noon in the other semifinal.
“These guys had a dream in August and went about making it happen throughout the year,” said Tambroni, who is 191-91 at Penn State. “I think these guys will keep after it, because there is so much more we can accomplish."
With the Big Ten growing into one of the top lacrosse conferences in the country, Penn State has been able to come into the Philadelphia area and out-recruit the four local Division I programs.
The Lions will bring 12 area players to the Linc, including junior Grant Ament from the Haverford School, who leads the nation in assists and points per game. Ament is the Big Ten offensive player of the year and a finalist for the Tewaaraton Trophy, awarded to college lacrosse’s top player. He is the first Division I player to record 90 assists in a season.
Senior defenseman Chris Sabia, also from Haverford School, is the Big Ten defensive player of the year. Freshman T.J. Malone, another Haverford School grad, has 30 goals and six assists.
Penn State leads the nation in scoring with 17.8 goals per game.
“We’re just really excited to be playing here on Memorial Day weekend,” Tambroni said. “It’s a huge confidence builder, and we’re happy to still be alive. It’s exciting for our program to be [in] such an elite group of lacrosse programs. We’re looking forward to keeping this opportunity going.”
Penn State’s first Final Four is not an overnight sensation. It’s a culmination of almost a decade of building. There have been false starts and setbacks, but just as he did at Cornell, Tambroni believed he had the right plan to elevate the Penn State program.
“First and foremost, it has been a process.” he said. “It certainly didn’t just happen. “It is the evolution of a lot of work, a lot of time, a lot of effort. We’ve had so many helping hands throughout the last nine years to make this happen.
“Everyone through the years embraces their role, whether it was big or small, to put us in this position. This is what excited me the most about coming to Penn State from Cornell. I wanted to build off of what Penn State had.