The Longest (and Last) Bus Trip of Grant Ament’s Extraordinary Penn State Lacrosse Career
The news came at 4:16 p.m., Thursday, March 12.
On Twitter, of all places.
The Penn State men’s lacrosse team bus was back on the road for barely 20 minutes after stopping for a late lunch at a Panera outside of Roanoke, Virginia.
Nittany Lion fifth-year senior and co-captain Grant Ament was already a bit more than uneasy. And it wasn’t the panini sandwich, either.
Yes, Penn State had started its two-game spring break southern road swing the previous Saturday by losing 18-17 to Cornell in Cornelius, N.C., when the Big Red scored two goals in the final 18 seconds. The loss was sure to drop PSU from its No. 2 ranking.
On Tuesday in Greenville, S.C., the Nittany Lions had rebounded to convincingly defeat Furman, 22-7. Ten Penn Staters scored and four goalies spent time in the nets as PSU upped its record to 5-2.
“After any loss you’re going to have some tough conversations,” Ament recalled. “When we played Furman, we had everyone clicking. We lit up the stat sheet. It was just a very good overall team win. I could feel the wheels starting to turn. In weeks prior we were winning, but we weren’t necessarily doing it the right way. We were primed to make a splash.”
Another splash. A presumptive 2020 preseason favorite after falling to Yale in the NCAA semi-finals in 2019, the Nittany Lions had lost 12-10 to Yale on Feb. 22 at Panzer Stadium.
Counting the Furman game, the Nittany Lions were 21-4 over their previous 25 games — with three of those losses to the Yalies. The fourth had just come against Cornell.
TOP GOLF, BOTTOMING OUT
On the Wednesday after the victory over Furman, coach Jeff Tambroni took his squad to Top Golf for a non-lax, relaxed off-day. “It was a lot of fun,” Ament recalled. “It was something to do as a team, keeping us close.”
The mood of the day was dampened considerably when, at precisely 3 p.m., the Ivy League announced that it was canceling its participation in any winter sports post-season competition as well as all spring sports. Effective immediately. Covoid-19.
“Once the Ivy League stuff came out, I knew right away — ‘This is it, we’re done,’ ” Ament remembers thinking. “Three of the Ivy League teams were in the top five, four were in the Top 15, and we had already played three of them.”
But Ament — like the rest of the Nittany Lions, an upperclassmen-laden unit that led the NCAA in scoring, scoring margin, points per game and shot percentage in 2019 — held hope against hope they would get to the Final Four, scheduled to be held at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field over Memorial Day weekend.
Like so many of his teammates, Ament has Philly roots — he’s from Doylestown and played his prep lax at The Haverford School on the Main Line. Barring traffic, Haverford is 20 minutes to The Linc, heading east on 30 then south on the turnpike. As a high school team captain in the spring of 2015, Ament led Haverford to a perfect 26-0 mark.
The 12-hour bus ride to the Carolinas was just part of the journey that was to end back in Philly, as the Penn State laxers secretly hoped to face their rivals from New Haven one final time. It was to be one of the final stretches of a truly legendary career at Penn State for Ament, who arrived in the fall of 2015, contributed immediately to a team that went 8-7 in 2016 and 12-4 in 2017.
But in 2018, Ament missed the entire season with a broken left leg. The Nittany Lions finished 8-6.
Ament roared back in 2019, and so did the Nittany Lions. They went 16-2 and won their first Big Ten championship. Ament set NCAA, Big Ten and Penn State records for assists (96) and an NCAA Tournament record for points, with 25. Scoring machine Mac O’Keefe set Big Ten and Penn State records for goals in a season, with 79.
2020 was going to be Penn State’s year.
Tambroni, the college lacrosse coach of the year in 2019 in his ninth season of building Penn State into a national power, had five fifth-year seniors in Ament, Brandon Stern, Kevin Hill, Tommy Wright and Dylan Foulds. Along with Ament and Wright, O’Keefe and Nick Cardile — who in 2020 wore the revered No. 16 jersey, in honor of the late goalie, Connor Darcey — were team captains.
They all were on that bus heading north that Thursday night, almost two weeks ago. Their destiny was minutes away after boarding the bus, seven hours into their long journey home.
There was still hope.
“Coach told us he had a 6 o’clock call with Sandy Barbour and the other head coaches,” Ament said. “So we hopped back on the bus.”
Twenty minutes later, the news hit. On Twitter, from the NCAA:
Today, NCAA President Mark Emmert and the Board of Governors canceled the Division I men’s and women’s 2020 basketball tournaments, as well as all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships. This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities.
Gone. Just like that.
“The bus went completely silent,” Ament paused, a bit choked up as we talked this past Saturday on Zoom. “I was sitting in the back of the bus and I went up front to talk to Coach.”
“Is this it?” Ament said to Tambroni, the coach he says “is like a father figure to me.”
“Yeah,” answered Tambroni, a tough guy, a straight-shooter, who strong-armed a down-and-out program into a paragon of success, on the field and off it, as well as in the classroom.
“I need to get more details," the coach said to his star. “But yeah. This is it.”
The bus drove on. Headed home to Happy Valley, happiness the furthest thing from the minds of a couple dozen Penn State students and coaches, their hearts just ripped out with a single Tweet.
A few hours went by. Slowly.
“There was no holding back,” Ament shared. “It was an emotional roller coaster. I’m thankful that at least we were together when it all happened. Shoulders to lean on. Everybody was going through the same thing.”
Tambroni knew he had to address all those seniors — more than a dozen in all. At the time, their Penn State sports life was over. The timing had to be right.
“We stopped at a rest stop in Breezewood, to switch bus drivers,” Ament remembered. “Coach got all the seniors out. I had never seen him like that. He couldn’t get words out. We know now that the NCAA is going to give seniors an extra year of eligibility. But at that point in time, we figured that was it for us.”
They got back on the bus. What else could they do?
There were still 93 miles to go until they made it back it that familiar parking lot on campus, next to their East Area locker room, tucked between Lasch and Holuba. So, what to do on those final two hours from Breezewood on an awful bus ride to a quiet and empty and seemingly future-less campus?
“Everybody,” said Ament, “got up and sang a song.”
Ament picked “Tequila” by Dan + Shay, a story of love gained, lost and re-discovered.
How I need your love,
How I need your love
Yeah, it sinks in.
That is lacrosse for Ament, a surprisingly small 5-foot-9, 165-pound incredibly tough kid who has endured two sets of broken bones and tightrope surgery — the high-ankle procedure popularized by Tua Tagovailoa. He’s taken a beating, but has always come back for more.
THE END. AND THE BEGINNING
Over the weekend, Ament announced on Instagram that he’s forgoing what would have been a sixth year of eligibility. He’s going to graduate in the spring, sans official commencement ceremonies.
“I have no regrets,” say Ament, a Penn Stater through-and-through. His parents, Lisa and Bradford, are PSU alum. As are twin brothers Blake and Brandon. “At this point in my life, it’s time to move on, to see where lacrosse and my professional life can take me.”
Understandable. Typically mature. Why come back and be a 24-year-old man among 18-year-old boys? Ament has proven his worth, made his mark, led by word and deed. He’s the Saquon Barkley of Penn State lacrosse.
Ament has the Big Ten and Penn State career record for assists, at 274 points. He’s been an All-American, a finalist for the Tewaraaton Award, lacrosse’s Heisman. He sat shotgun to Tambroni and the Class of 2019 in driving home a rebirth of Penn State lacrosse.
The team, the team, the team.
And he was a key part of doing it the right way.
“There’s the lax bro mentality, and we wanted to get rid of that,” he admits.
“The fifth-year seniors can hang their hat on that. More important than a winning culture is the team culture. And that has changed significantly — in the classroom, on the field, in the way we go about things. We have good players; you certainly need them to win. But the culture at Penn State has changed. Guys are willing to do a lot more to succeed these days.
“The 2019 class was the culture-changing class. Guys weren’t afraid to tell other guys if they weren’t working hard enough. They were willing to lay it out there and give it everything they had. But, really, Coach Tambroni gets credit for all of that more than anyone.”
Ament’s next challenge will come in a few weeks.
He’s an organizer of “The Last Shift Virtual 5K Challenge,” to be held on Monday, April 6. It’s a fundraiser to benefit cancer patients, where participants will run 5K — maintaining social distancing while practicing social responsibility.
His co-leaders are fellow collegiate lacrosse stars Ally Kennedy of Stony Brook and Michael Sowers of Princeton. All three were finalists for the 2019 Tewaraaton. You can donate online by clicking here or by donating via Venmo at @HEAD-STRONG.
“This is the perfect time for sports,” Ament said. “And sports are not there.
“In times like this, when there’s a struggle, people want to attach themselves to a group. This allows people to be involved in something greater than themselves.”
No surprise he’s leading the charge. Again.
Amen to that, Grant Ament. Amen.