PHILADELPHIA - Every team that suffers through a tough season can be excused when its players spend time afterward saying, "what if?"
Then there is the Penn men's lacrosse team, and its 2012 campaign. You would be hard-pressed to find a team that had a more hard-luck season. Need some examples?
On March 31, Penn and Yale were tied, 9-9, with less than a minute to go. Penn had the ball. The Quakers went a little early on their play, though, and when the shot was saved Yale had time to get an outlet pass that eventually led to a goal with 12 seconds left and the win. What if the Red and Blue had held the ball just a little longer before running their final play?
A week later, the Quakers were a goal up on Brown late in the fourth quarter, allowed the Bears to tie the game, and then saw their opponent work three minutes off the clock before scoring with just 11 seconds to play to win, 11-10. What if Penn wins that faceoff when the score was tied, 10-10?
On April 21, Penn got off to a slow start at Dartmouth, but a late flurry got the Quakers within a goal. Penn won the final faceoff, and Drew Belinsky got off a shot with about 30 seconds left that was saved. The Red and Blue collected the ensuing ground ball, but then turned it over and lost, 7-6. What if Belinsky's shot goes in? What if Penn doesn't turn it over after the ground ball, and gets another chance to score?
Then there was March 10. On that day, Penn was up 6-2 on No. 12 Villanova heading into the final minute of the third quarter. However, a non-releasable unsportsmanlike penalty gave the Wildcats the ball, and they scored twice before the teams were back even. Despite that, Penn still led by a goal with just over a minute left in the game. With 10 seconds left, the game was tied but Penn had the ball and was attacking the goal. The Quakers' shot was stopped, however, and Villanova's goalie sent a long outlet pass to one of his midfielders. He received the pass near midfield, took about four steps and uncorked an underhanded shot from about 30 yards out. The ball skidded across the ground, shot past Penn goalie Brian Feeney, and ripped the netting for a goal. The time on the clock? :01. You might watch the sport your whole life and never see a finish like that one.
The question can even extend off the field. Two players that would likely have played major roles this season -- one returning (Greg Ives), one newcomer (Chris Hupfeldt) -- were shut down before they even began, suffering injuries that kept them on the sidelines for the entire season. What if they play? How does that change the Quakers' lineup and depth?
As it was, Penn's schedule once again was rated the toughest in the country, as the 13-game slate featured seven teams that were ranked at the time of their meeting with the Quakers (four in the Top 10). Six of Penn's opponents made the 16-team NCAA Championship field.
In other words, Penn may have finished 3-10 -- but they are not far from being back among the elite programs. In addition to those close losses, you could point to the Quakers' four-goal win over North Carolina, a team that was ranked eighth at the time of the game and eventually made the NCAAs. Heck, how about Penn's loss to Cornell? The Quakers were up 11-8 heading into the fourth quarter on the No. 4 Big Red, before getting blitzed by an eight-goal avalanche and taking a 16-11 loss.
The Quakers lose five valuable seniors, including three of their top four scorers in John Conneely, Dan Savage and Anthony Adler. Another senior, Will Koshansky, was a second-team All-Ivy selection for the second year in a row and was drafted by Major League Lacrosse's Boston Cannons. Add in Alek Ferro, a captain and regular at short-stick middie the last several years, and there are big shoes to fill.
Head Coach Mike Murphy recently sat down with the Penn Sports Network to recap the 2012 season, and look ahead to the summer and the 2012-13 year for his program.