Penn State Men's Lacrosse: Nittany Lions Prepare To Chase History As NCAA Tournament Begins Sunday
"A few months later, during the 2009 SEC media days, a reporter asked what it felt like knowing anything but perfection would be a failure. (Urban) Meyer tried to laugh it off, but he walked away from the podium knowing the undeniable truth of the question. -Wright Thompson, ESPN in 2012
There is an unenviable pressure that comes with being the No.1 seed. You are the favorite to win it all, and the most likely to do just that.
But you also have the most to lose. Nobody is surprised when the team they didn't expect to win comes up short. The favorite though? You're trying to live up to the hype, hoping to make the most of an often fleeting opportunity, and failure to do so brings a different taste to the mouth. Everything has been leading up to this moment, now it's a matter of passing the test.
The postseason is when the elite prove that they are. Anyone can go on a winning streak when the stakes aren't as high, can you do it when everything is on the line?
On paper Penn State is the best team in the nation, a relentless attack led by Grant Ament and Mac O'Keefe and timely defense to it all up. The program is having a historic season, and its two best attackers are posting historic numbers.
So the answer to how you prepare for the biggest games of your life might be simple. Don't change anything.
"We're just focusing on ourselves right now," O'Keefe said on Wednesday. The Nittany Lions will face UMBC, which defeated Marist on Wednesday night in the tournament's play-in game. UMBC's basketball program beat Virginia two years ago in the NCAA Tournament, the first 16-seed to ever beat a No.1 seed. The parallels there are hard to ignore.
The good news for Penn State, while the Nittany Lions' 14-1 record has been fairly easy sledding, it hasn't come without a healthy sprinkling of adversity. The Nittany Lions have won three games this season by a single goal, including a come-from-behind victory over John's Hopkins in the Big Ten Tournament final.
The 27-10 and 20-9 victories are there as well, but there is something to be said for a team that can gut out the wins when the pressure is on. There won't be a game this tournament that the Nittany Lions haven't been a part of before, and no type of game they have yet to win.
"I think these one-goal games, that we've won have been big for us," O'Keefe added. "In the past we hadn't been able to finish out fourth quarters and we've given up games that we could have won. So those one-goal games that we've won have definitely been a big turnaround for us and I think it's really going to help us in the postseason."
For coach Jeff Tambroni this weekend marks an interesting dance with history. The program has never won an NCAA Tournament game, coming up short in its previous four appearances. A win would be historic in its own right, but now as the No.1 seed that piece of history feels secondary to a larger goal. It will be celebrated if it happens, but its importance diminished by what else feels so close to happening.
"When I first got here we believed that this was an institution that could enjoy being extremely successful and having long term tradition," Tambroni said. "At the same time I've learned a lot of lessons myself over course of the last eight and half years. Tradition isn't built in a day and it doesn't go away in a day. These are things that take time. How much time, I certainly didn't realize or recognize that coming in, and I know it has taken us a while, but I've always held in my heart, that we believed that we would put ourselves in a position to compete at the game's highest level."
"I've never said to anyone we're going to win Big Ten Championships or National Championships because there are so many great teams and too many things need to align out there for you to get there any given year. But I believed that if we could just recruit young men who were 100-percent invested in the institution and each other, that you would always have a chance to win."
And now those things seem to be aligned.
But only time will tell if the Nittany Lions are ready to make the most of it.
“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. It’s deep down inside holding that vision, and just saying, ‘Man, if we do this on a daily basis, anything is possible.’”