With the news that the NCAA has approved an extra year of eligibility for spring sport athletes who had their season short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re starting up a new feature. Honoring and highlighting those seniors who, despite having the opportunity to remain in school for another season, have chosen to move on with the next phase of their life and potentially college careers. Even though the opportunity is out there, it’s not something that’ll work for everyone and those who move on still unfortunately had their season cut short. So we want to write, talk, and share our memories and thoughts on some of those seniors who blessed us with incredible moments over their careers. And we start it with the one player who so far has announced he is moving on from college; Penn State’s Grant Ament.
Ament lived in many ways, unfortunately, a cursed collegiate existence. Before his junior year, a year after leading Penn State to the NCAA Tournament in a season where they reached the #1 ranking, he broke his metatarsal. The injury, which is incredibly painful and can linger for years after it’s first suffered, cost Ament the entire 2018 season. It hurt the Nittany Lions as well, they went 8-6 and missed the postseason altogether, never looking the same without their talisman. A year later, when Ament returned and lit up the college lacrosse world with one of the most dazzling seasons we have ever seen, Penn State came up short in the Final Four in his home state; despite having one of the greatest seasons in the history of the sport, the Nittany Lions didn’t even make it to Memorial Day. And then this. In his redshirt senior season, with him and virtually every contributor from the most prolific offense in men’s D1 in 30 years, a pandemic that’s swept the globe and essentially put us all on pause wiped out the season and has ended his college career.
I think the put us on pause metaphor is good, because in a lot of ways it sums up and defines who Ament was as a player. When he had the ball in his stick, methodically controllin the pace of play like a metronome, it’s like he put everything on pause. The opposing defenders, his teammates, everything. Everything froze to a standstill. And then boom. He’d make a seam splitting pass, or dodge and draw a double team to find a wide open player on the doorstep, or even use a little hitch step before stepping past his defender to finish in the goal. No one was ever more in control of his surroundings, of what the defenders hopelessly trying to guard him, or his offense - and it was his offense - was doing than Ament. It was like everything was on pause.
I’ve often described how good Ament was at passing and his overall style and dominance like this: There are amazing passers in the game and have been before, during, and eventually after Ament’s career. Michael Sowers was averaging 1.5 more assists per game in the short 2020 season than Ament. Pat Spencer froze defenders with his passing like few others have in his careers. Lyle Thompson made some dizzying ones. But those feeders, and so many before them, were great at making every pass. Grant Ament was great at making passes that didn’t exist. Players would spend whole offensive possessions never once looking open, and then Ament would throw a no look skip pass through the entire defense and suddenly they were. There were passing lanes that looked completely closed to any sort of feed, completely packed in. Ament pierced them anyway. The behind the back pass on the perimeter, dozen plus yards away from goal was a highlight reel play someone would make once or twice a year. Ament did it once or twice a game. Flipping it behind his back to open space for a cutter to score, or shooter way up top to finish. No one created passes that didn’t exist, passes you had never seen before, the way Ament did. It was majestic, the work of a true artist, painting something you had to look at several times to actually see what was there.
The numbers are dizzying. 284 career points in 54 games, the most in Big Ten history, more than Rambo, Bernhardt, Brown, Shack Stanwick, Henningburg. 21st in NCAA history, 16th most in the last quarter century; more than Steele Stanwick, Zulberti, McEneaney, Berg, Gait. 191 career assists, again the most in Big Ten history, 7th most all time; more than Danowski, Lowe, Fields, Boyle, and Michael Powell. On a per game basis, he’s Top 20 all time in points and Top 10 in assists. And then that 2019 season. That incredible, record shattering, magical 2019 season. 126 points. 2nd most all time. 96 assists. 19 more than Steve Marohl and Lyle Thompson in 2nd; that gap is the difference between Marohl, Thompson and players who don’t even rank in the Top 25 of single season assists. It’s the highest points per game in a season by any player in the last quarter century. It might be the greatest season in the history of the sport.
But the incredible highlights and stats, as remarkable as they are, don’t tell the true story of Ament’s remarkable career. That story is told in where Penn State was before he got there, and where they are now as he leaves. In the two years before Ament arrived, Penn State was 12-15. Jeff Tambroni was 40-33 for his entire tenure at Penn State, with one NCAA Tournament appearance and no wins. They had one ten win season in the previous nineteen years. In their 16 years in a conference, they had won two conference titles; across the ECAC, CAA, and Big Ten.
Then Ament showed up. In his 2nd year, they went 12-4, got to #1 in the country, tied the program record for wins, and made the tournament. The next year, without him, they won 8 games. He comes back, and they double their win total. 16-2, a perfect 7-0 against the Big Ten - the only other Big Ten team to do that was 2016 Maryland, only three other teams did an undefeated conference regular season and tournament slate across the entire Big Ten/ACC/Ivy League in the 2010 - the #1 overall seed for the first time in program history, and the program’s first Final Four. Tambroni’s win % was 54.7% before he got there, was 73% with him in the line-up, and is now 62% as he leaves. And the perception that Penn State was a perpetual sleeping giant, always threatening to awaken but sliding right back into a slumber as soon as they tasted success, evaporated. They firmly arrived and are now on the map with the best programs in the sport. There’s very few players in recent memory wh can stake their claim to being a true program changer like that, someone who changed the success and perception of a program on the level that a head coach would. There’s still a question though of what the program is without Ament, whether it can sustain without their greatest ever player and immaculate talisman.
That question is left to the future and unknown. But Grant Ament’s legacy is secure, as a program changer of the best kind, and one of the most entertaining and best players of his era.