By Matt De George
For Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 5/26/23
Days like Friday were always on the list of objectives for Haverford School alum TJ Malone. As the Penn State attackman endured hip surgeries to fix chronic injuries that limited him in 2021 and cost him all of the 2022 season, the chance to get back to a stage like the NCAA Final Four at Lincoln Financial Field was one of the lights at the end of the tunnel.
With that work, though, comes a quick caveat from the redshirt senior: He and his Penn State teammates aren’t just happy to be here.
“It makes it all worth it,” Malone said. “It’s been a long, long journey. Just playing here this weekend, lacrosse’s biggest stage, it’s fun. That’s why we play the game. It’s the same game I’ve been playing my whole life. It doesn’t change; you just try to use the energy and the environment to our advantage.”
Malone, Penn State’s leading scorer and the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, will lead the Nittany Lions into the first semifinal Saturday, against top-ranked Duke (Noon, ESPN).
Malone is one of the few holdovers from Penn State’s last taste of the Final Four – the program’s first, in 2019, also at the Linc. The experience of a 21-17 loss to Yale in the semifinals that year has banished any inkling of the Nittany Lions being satisfied with just the participation trophy this time. Malone has spent the week trying to distill his lessons from playing under the bright lights for the younger guys on the squad.
“Just trying to use some learned experiences from the past,” Malone said. “We got to that weekend, and it didn’t go our way. So what can we learn from that and how can we preach that to the younger guys who haven’t been there?”
One odd echo for Malone is the similarity of his journey to that of his mentor, Grant Ament. Ament had to redshirt his junior season in 2018 and returned to become a Tewaaraton finalist in 2019, the engine of the Final Four run. Malone learned at his side, a three-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week, and still talks to him once or twice a week. The elder Penn Stater was instrumental in helping Malone cope with the physical and mental challenges of a long rehab.
“I definitely wouldn’t be here without him,” Malone said.
The combination of injuries and the COVID-19 pandemic has extended Malone’s career beyond what he would’ve expected, but he’s made the most of it. Malone led the team with 33 goals and 32 points this season. That includes two goals and four assists in a first-round win over Princeton, 13-12, and four goals in the 10-9 win over Army in the quarterfinals.
Malone – the 2018 Phillylacrosse.com Co-Player of the Year – fits a trend in the Nittany Lions’ return to national prominence, powered by Pennsylvania talent. Their top three scorers – Jack Traynor has 31 goals, Matt Traynor 30 – are Inter-Ac grads, the Traynors among four Malvern Prep players. Jake Morin (Garnet Valley) is sixth on the team with 21 points; Mac Costin (Haverford School) is sixth in goals at 15. Freshman LSM Ryan O’Connor (Springfield-Delco) has emerged as a key.
The commonality is less about being from Philly than the mentality that imparts, a certain blue-collar ethos from guys who might not have been the most highly recruited but have steadily improved and filled larger roles.
“Coach T (Jeff Tambroni) recruits the same type of kids, a lot of guys have that same idea in the back of their mind that they want to come here and work hard,” Morin said. “They don’t have something that’s just given to them. They want to work hard. I think that helps us.”
The last time Penn State was at the Linc, the players wore the newness of the achievement, much as they tried to put it aside. The message that it was just another game was harder to sell for a group that had never played in this game before.
Four years later, Malone might not have envisioned himself being back here. But he knew the program would be. And the collision of those factors is something he wants to make the most of.
“There’s some real belief,” he said. “Before 2019, no one on our team had been there. So now that we can kind of see it come to fruition, it’s easier to believe and preach to the younger guys.”
NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championships
Click here to purchase tickets
at Lincoln Financial Field
Saturday, May 27
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 5 Penn State, noon on ESPN2
No. 2 Virginia vs. No. 3 Notre Dame, 2:30 p.m. on ESPN2
Sunday, May 28
No. 5 Lenoir-Rhyne vs. No. 2 Mercyhurst, 1 p.m. on NCAA.com
Sunday, May 28
Tufts vs. Salisbury, 4 p.m. on NCAA.com
Monday, May 29, 1 p.m. on ESPN