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Men’s Lacrosse Tournament Shows the Power of True Competition

“If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!” 
–The final stanza of “If” by Rudyard Kipling. 

To paraphrase the stanza above, last weekend those of us in Annapolis to watch the NCAA men’s lacrosse regionals saw four different teams of young men who filled the unforgiving hour with 60 minutes’ worth of lacrosse run. Those witnessing the intensity of competition and post-game emotions saw the best of college sports.

For most of the players on the four teams in the Annapolis regional, this was, to date, the biggest game they had played. On days like that, coaches have a hand in strategy, but the outcome also relies on the attitudes they set for their programs.

The most lasting impression of those games was the incredible effort and toughness of the young men on the field, men driven to greatness by competition of the highest order. There was no discussion of point spreads, or prop bets, or who would be in the transfer portal looking for the biggest NIL deals.

The only outcome that mattered was winning to keep the season alive.

Men’s lacrosse is a combination of skill, speed, grace, power and contact. Some guys play defense, some play offense, some guys play both and some sub in and out. If you lack toughness or don’t give full effort, there is nowhere to hide. 

The goalie has the added pressure of being noticeable to everyone who watches the game. And with a goalie, the only real glory comes in facing and saving great shots. Without a worthy adversary, can the goalie ever attain his fullest potential?  

Last Sunday it seemed that every faceoff, every ground ball, every save that ricocheted back into play became a moment attracting two or three or four men singularly focused on getting the ball for their team. Players collided, held and dug into the grass to get the ball. Thoughts of safety were secondary to thoughts about getting the ball for their team.

That team-first mentality still rules the day in college lacrosse. While professional lacrosse is growing, those thoughts are distant for the majority of these players. And yes, the transfer portal plays a part in the sport, but these programs are overwhelmingly anchored in the players they signed out of high school. 

Maybe that’s why this past weekend’s games stood out. On a national stage, with a national television audience, with one of the largest NCAA regional crowds in history on hand, the focus was solely on what was happening between the lines.

The officiating may have been a little lax—pardon the pun—but it seemed at least to be lax evenly for all teams. There was uncalled holding, slashing, grabbing and excessive hitting. That certainly tested the resolve of these men. But in the NCAA tourney when the casual fan is tuned in, keeping the game flowing may be preferable to seeing lots of flags.  

Fans saw student-athletes from four teams who knew that the outcome for them, their teammates and their schools mattered more than any personal accolades. Players who’ve been together for three or four or five years listened to the anthem, awaited the opening faceoff and knew that if they did not win, their days together would be at an end.

The full 60 minutes of unceasingly relentless effort was a reflection of the coaches and players who know how precious these moments can be. The older guys recall being on a bus or on a campus three years ago when COVID pulled the plug on their 2020 season. That kind of perspective focuses you on life’s key moments. You refuse to cede that ground for anything. 

As Johns Hopkins battled Notre Dame, they faced one of the game’s best players repeatedly hitting him. Outwardly he displayed some frustration, but in the thick of the game other Notre Dame players scored goals to help him carry the day. And despite Penn State’s lead, Army’s players kept pushing. Trailing in the third quarter, an Army player was double-, then triple-teamed, yet fought through contact and scored a goal that sparked a run.

And with just seconds to play and trailing by one, Army had a man-advantage after a Penn State penalty. But Penn State’s defense withstood a furious free-for-all in front of their own net. An instant-replay review determined that Army’s tying goal was just a second late and that Penn State had held on just long enough.

There is something beautiful to behold in a game like that. In a world where sports social media warriors think trolling and taunting after a win has some sort of value, true competitors put it on the line and let performance and effort talk for them. And when the game ends, we see a range of true human emotions, not social media-manufactured posing. It is among the most authentic things you will ever see in your life.

It is real because in each game two teams invest their heart and soul: an investment of weeks and months and years of training leading to that one moment. They lay it all on the line, filling the unforgiving hour with 60 minutes for all to see: hoping to earn another game with the men in their unique brotherhood.

The winning players rejoice, smile and hug in the thrill of emerging victorious through a hard-fought hour. 

But just a few yards away another group of players have a sudden realization that in coming up just short, it is all over. They also hug, but tears flow. Sadness comes with an understanding that they will never again all stand together on the sideline in their school’s colors.

Across the years, I’ve been fortunate to witness some of the greatest competitors of our times. But whether it was witnessing first-hand Penn State’s women’s volleyball team defeat Texas in five sets for a national title, or a last-second shot to lift Lady Lions basketball over No. 1 Virginia in Charlottesville or men’s lacrosse in Annapolis, these moments made everyone who saw them understand the power of competition to ignite life’s passions to their fullest.

So if you are passionate about Penn State or passionate about pure competition in college sports today, there is only one place for you to be on Saturday. No. 5 Penn State takes on No. 1 Duke at noon and No. 2 Virginia takes on No. 3 Notre Dame at 2:30 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. 

These are the kind of big stage moments showcasing the best in student-athletes who inspire all who love a seemingly bygone era of college athletics competition. Get there, because by the example of these student-athletes, you’ll leave a little better than when you got there.