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Penn riding high after winning first Ivy League lacrosse championship in 31 years

The Quakers are on an eight-game winning streak after starting 0-3.

Penn senior Tyler Dunn hoists the Ivy League trophy after the Quakers defeated Yale to complete a 6-0 league season.
Penn senior Tyler Dunn hoists the Ivy League trophy after the Quakers defeated Yale to complete a 6-0 league season.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

They’re feelin’ themselves.

Yes, the players on the Penn men’s lacrosse team have swag.

“Just having a massive group of alumni supporting us and texting us after every game saying how they love watching us and how they love to support our program," team captain Tyler Dunn says, "it’s just a whole 'nother level of swagger and confidence that it brings. And I think that it really translates to the field as well.”

By defeating Dartmouth on Saturday, the Quakers have clinched the program’s first Ivy League title since 1988, when they were cochampions. They are ranked fourth in the country.

Next up for Penn are a nonleague game Saturday against Vermont and then the Ivy League Tournament, scheduled for May 3 and 5 at Columbia. The Quakers ended last season the same way they had the previous two: with a loss to Yale in the Ivy tournament. Yale went on to win the national title last season.

This past offseason, Penn coach Mike Murphy went back to the drawing board. This time, he included his two senior captains, Dunn and Simon Mathias, in conversations that included an offensive-coordinator change, practice planning, travel, and practice time. Murphy’s goal was to get his players to play with more pace and passion.

“If he gives us more rope to play with, that will gear the season and our practices and our time in the locker room and off the field more towards the way we want to do it and how we think it’s going to help us succeed," Mathias says. “He’s done that, and I think it has shown in the way that we have performed on the field.”

The fall semester was calm, but the team hit the weight room once the flowers began to bloom. Practices are a relaxed environment including a three-hour-plus music playlist flowing through a speaker placed at midfield.

Despite the changes, though, the Quakers still dropped their first three games this season to Maryland, Duke, and Penn State — the top three teams in the current rankings. Murphy says a big reason they made it through those first three weeks was the positive vibe they had created entering the season. Murphy added that after the third loss, to Penn State, he had a conversation with the team about John Wooden’s philosophy, which he sees resonating with his players.

“First you have to learn how to play the game, then you have to learn how to compete, and then you have to learn how to win, ,” Murphy said. “So I think we learned how to compete in the early part of the season and that taught us how to win and ultimately turned some of those one-goal losses into one-goal wins.”

The Quakers have bounced back in a big way from the 0-3 start. The win over Dartmouth left them at 8-3 and completed a 6-0 season in the Ivy, their first perfect league season since 1986. Along the way, they got their revenge against Yale, winning a three-overtime thriller on March 30.

Junior Adam Goldner credits the team captains over that losing stretch for staying even-keeled no matter the result of the game. No one was pointing fingers, and everyone, he says, continued to trust the coaches and the game plan.

“They kind of told us this was the turning point of our season,” Goldner said. “They say bonds form adversity, and we really came out stronger after those three losses.”

The Quakers have a free-flowing offense with key contributors including Goldner and freshmen Sam Handley and Dylan Gergar. Goldner has scored more than a quarter of Penn’s goals, with his 44 tying the program’s single-season record set by John Shoemaker in 1987. Goldner credits his success to Penn’s transition transfer, Kyle Gallagher, for winning the bulk of faceoffs and to first-year offensive coordinator Mike Abbott.

“I think he has put a lot of trust in us‚” Goldner said of Abbott. “Playing with and for each other is a big emphasis for us. When we move the ball quickly, we play unselfish lacrosse. It’s a really important aspect of our offense.”

Dunn and Mathias said that the team goals were to win the Ivy regular season and tournament, earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament, and advance to play at Lincoln Financial Field, which will host the national semifinals on May 25 and the final two days later.

“We believe we are really in position to win a bunch of those goals,” Mathias said. “They’re a bunch of fantastic lacrosse teams that are out there. ... We just have to keep our goals in sight and keep making sure every week we’re trying to get better.”