Men's lacrosse opens season with tough matchup against No. 7 Penn State

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By Minh Doan, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 6, 2014

On Saturday afternoon, the Michigan lacrosse team has the perfect opportunity to show exactly why this could be the season it becomes a legitimate Division I contender.

The Wolverines enter their contest at No. 7 Penn State looking to open their year on a high note. After beating Marquette, 18-9, in a scrimmage last Saturday, Michigan hopes to finally break out after consecutive one-win seasons.

“We’re very excited to get the season started,” said fifth-year senior midfielder Thomas Paras. “I think everyone’s pretty anxious to get going Saturday.”

The Wolverines will be taking on a Nittany Lion team largely considered one of the biggest powerhouses in the lacrosse world. Penn State made the NCAA Tournament last year as the No. 7 seed and comes into the new year a heavy favorite to win the Colonial Athletic Association.

“Penn State is a tough team,” Paras said. “But we’re coming into the season with the expectation that we can play with anyone.”

The Nittany Lions are led by Jeff Tambroni, a two-time recipient of the CAA Coach of the Year Award. In his four years at Penn State, Tambroni has built a program that excels on both sides of the ball.

The Nittany Lions offense is led by attacker and 2013 CAA Rookie of the Year TJ Sanders, who topped his team with 44 goals last season. On the other side of the ball, Penn State’s defense is also very strong, building on a No. 2 national ranking last year.

But in lacrosse, the success of the defense depends largely on the goaltender, and the Nittany Lions have one of the best in netminder Austin Kaut. The senior had a fantastic 2013 campaign in which he won the Ensign C. Markland Kelly Jr. Award, given to the best collegiate goaltender in the nation. He also was honored as the CAA Player of the Year.

“Anytime we’re on offense, we have to be smart with the ball and not have giveaways,” Paras said. “With a good goalie like (Kaut), we have to make sure that we’re eliminating any mental mistakes, unforced turnovers and making (Penn State) play to our tempo.”

Kaut and midfielder Tom LaCrosse were both selected in Major League Lacrosse’s player draft, which took place in January.

The Wolverines will try to score on the stout Penn State defense using their midfielders. Michigan coach John Paul knows his team won’t get many chances, but the key to winning will be to capitalize on those opportunities when they come.

Playing just their third season as a varsity program — with only two official recruiting classes — the Wolverines will rely heavily on their youth. This means that many freshmen will be given a substantial amount of playing time this Saturday in their first official NCAA game.

That list of freshmen includes goalie Robbie Zonino, attacker Ian King and midfielder Mikie Schlosser. All three will be given opportunities to shine early on.

Zonino has the task of replacing East Coast Athletic Conference Goalie of the Year Gerald Logan, who tore his labrum and is out for the season.

“The key to (Zonino’s) success is confidence,” Paul said. “He needs to make a few saves and get hot early.”

Saturday’s match will be a good gauge of where Michigan stands as a program. For a team badly in need of a signature win on their résumé, a victory over Penn State would be a good way for the Wolverines to announce their arrival to the lacrosse world.

For that to happen, though, Michigan knows it’ll have to put together one of its best games.

“The goalie has to play well, we’re going to have to win face-offs, everyone is going to have to play well,” Paul said. “We’re going to have to execute as a team really, really well.”