Men's Lacrosse - Penn State vs Army West Point

Chris Sabia (25) defends during the game against Army West Point at Holuba Hall on Saturday, January 28, 2017. Penn State defeated Army West Point 15-12.

The preseason is over, the predictions are in and on Saturday, the games will start to count for real.

After two weeks of preseason games — and wins over Navy and Army — Penn State showed it has the foundations to make a run at an NCAA Tournament berth. For the last two years, the Nittany Lions, led by coach Jeff Tambroni, have finished fourth in the Big Ten.

And both times, they’ve missed out on the 16-team NCAA tournament. Last season, they were in the mix right to the end.

This year, the Nittany Lions should be tournament bound.

Over a week ago, the now-No. 15 Nittany Lions slashed the Midshipmen up in a 16-6 win. The attacking trio of Grant Ament, Mac O’Keefe — who has replaced TJ Sanders — and Nick Aponte showed its ability and athleticism, creating open looks quickly on nearly every possession.

Freshman Gerard Arceri has demonstrated that he will be able to complement Billy Lombardi at the faceoff X, and they will have a capable rotation of players able to take faceoffs. Last year, Drake Kreinz, who now plays middie, was injured early in the year, and the Nittany Lions struggled at the faceoff X until Lombardi’s development started to take off in the middle of the season.

In net, Will Schreiner is coming back for his second season as a starter, and Tambroni said he can develop into a real difference-maker.

Defensively, the Nittany Lions are in the midst of an injury crisis, but when they get healthy, they will have a deep and capable group to assist Schreiner in minimizing opposition scoring chances.

The Nittany Lions have been picked to finish third in the Big Ten, behind perennial powerhouses Maryland and Johns Hopkins, and ahead of Ohio State, Rutgers and Michigan.

The conference schedule is only five games, and it takes place in the final stretch of the regular season. It sets the field for the four-team conference tournament. The Nittany Lions need to maximize their intensity levels every week during the non-conference portion of the schedule because it will leave them sitting in a good place for an at-large bid before conference play.

Last year, the Nittany Lions beat three ranked teams early in non-conference games: then-No. 1 Denver, No. 7 Harvard and No. 18 Cornell. However, they dropped some games that they should have beaten, as it seemed like they couldn’t replicate the intensity they showed against ranked foes.

Those wins pushed them to No. 18 heading into conference play, and a win over the Buckeyes in the Horseshoe moved them up to No. 14.

A tournament bid was within reach.

Then, the Nittany Lions dropped three straight games by a goal, two of which came in overtime to the Terrapins and Blue Jays. The next week, they lost to the Scarlet Knights by a goal after giving up a healthy four-goal second half lead.

After that loss against Rutgers, Penn State needed a Big Ten tournament title to get in the tournament, but the Terrapins ousted the Nittany Lions in the semifinals, ending their season.

This year, they have the talent to improve on last season, to get over the hump and get into the 16-team field.

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