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Penn State Men's Lacrosse Ready for a Second Chance at Closure

by on April 17, 2020 3:30 PM

Penn State men's lacrosse coach Jeff Tambroni has ridden the emotional rollercoaster as much as anyone in the sports world the past few months.

First his team was a national title contender, the Nittany Lions looking to return to the Final Four for the second-straight season, hopeful to finish what they started just a year ago. Then the season was canceled, the COVID-19 pandemic so well engrained into our daily lives that it needs no introduction.

And just like that, the dream was gone, seniors with elite potential were headed out the door. Sure, the Nittany Lions were bringing back lots of younger talent but it was hard to ignore the things that could have been.

But then the NCAA stepped in, and a waiver would allow for every senior participating in a spring sport to return for an extra year. Those seasons that had ended prematurely would never begin again, but there would be closure in the form of another try, another year to play.

As like all great things in life, there was a catch. The NCAA would permit seniors to return, but they would not return for free. Schools still had to pay for scholarships and the various expenses surrounding a student athlete's career on campus. This coupled with an uncertain future for college football, and an uncertain checkbook balance to go along with it meant that nothing was guaranteed. Some schools politely ushered their seniors out the door. Others, like Penn State, welcomed them back and wrote the check.

That's a lot in just a month or so.

"Knowing how much time and effort these guys put in to their careers to see them end in the fashion and in the manner that they did. I would have been disappointed for our guys and for our families," Tambroni said on Friday.  

"At the same time,we step back recognize the climate that we're in and we step back and and recognize the magnitude of the decision either way. Having said that, our feeling was extreme gratitude. We love our guys and families that are associated with this particular group. We were hoping that we were going to have a more appropriate opportunity for closure with this group."

For Tambroni the pitch was simple, but the situation was complex. Financial restraints meant talking to families about scholarships, it meant seeing if families wanted to put plans on hold, if players wanted to put their future on hold. For the likes of Grant Ament, he opted to turn pro, perhaps the best player in the country, ready to finally see to the next chapter unfold after a long career in Happy Valley.

Then there's Mac O'Keefe, perhaps the best attacker in the country and certainly the most lethal goal-scorer in the land. He has unfinished business, scores to settle and a few trophies to chase.

"Mac was in our office as soon as the decision came out," Tambroni said.

"I don't want to look back in 20 years and regret not taking the opportunity," O'Keefe added on Friday.

He wasn't the only one, Penn State will welcome back just over a half dozen seniors who would have seen their eligibility expire. The dynamic makes for a packed roster, but also one with tons of experience.

It also makes for a unique change in narrative. For years O'Keefe and Ament had been two people but one tandem. You couldn't say ones name without mentioning the other. They played together seamlessly, a product of their relationship off the field as much as the relationship on it. They were a force.

And now there is just one.

O'Keefe doesn't see it that way though, the tandem might be broken up, but the skill around the roster is still there. And sure O'Keefe might be the most talented goalscorer in the nation, but one does not score goals alone.

"I think we have so many guys in our team that don't get enough credit for what they do," O'Keefe said. "They make my job so much easier than it already is. So, you know, it sounds nice to lead this team. And I'm going to lead this team as much as I can. But the sole focus of this team should not just be on myself. It should be on everybody that makes it happen around me."

In the meanwhile O'Keefe will enjoy a unique aspect of his March and April; his legs don't hurt. The one byproduct of not having a season is not getting smacked with a lacrosse stick every day. That is, not matter how much you love the game, a small silver-lining.

"Yeah, that's definitely a weird feeling," O'Keefe said with a laugh. "[I'm] used to being wired to have in your body chopped off every single day now. I'm just sitting here on my computer playing around so it's really weird, being as fresh as I am right now."

But there are worse things, especially these days.



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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