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NCAA lacrosse scoring record within grasp for Penn State's Mac O'Keefe

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Penn State senior Mac O'Keefe one goal from tying NCAA lacrosse record (3:21)

Penn State senior Mac O'Keefe is a goal away from tying the NCAA's all-time record of 212 thanks to getting an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Video by Josh Weinfuss (3:21)

Mac O'Keefe tries not to think about the record he's about to break, or read about it or hear about it or pay attention to it. It's not that easy, though. All it takes is a scroll through his social media and it's there, in his hand, staring him, in the face.

O'Keefe, the Penn State lacrosse star, is a goal away from tying the NCAA's all-time goals record thanks to an extra year of eligibility because the COVID-19 pandemic canceled his initial senior season after seven games in 2020. He knows the record is there, knows he's bound to break it -- likely this weekend -- and knows what it'll mean to him, his family and this team, but he's not letting it consume him.

"I see it a little bit, yeah," O'Keefe told ESPN. "I try and, like, block out a lot of stuff though because I think if you're focused too much on it, it can become a little overwhelming.

"I'm trying to just focus on what this team can do to be the best team possible. We haven't had the best start to our season and I'm just trying to turn things around for us right now."

O'Keefe has been doing his part.

He leads the 2-6 Nittany Lions with 19 goals with two games left before the Big Ten tournament, which precedes the NCAA tournament. He's in a good spot to tie and set the all-time scoring record.

O'Keefe entered this season with 192 goals, tied for six on the NCAA's all-time list. His two goals in the final 3 minutes of Saturday's loss to Rutgers put O'Keefe at 211. He's one off the record held by former Duke star Justin Guterding, another Long Island product who's two years older than O'Keefe, grew up 11 miles from him in Garden City and played for O'Keefe's father's lacrosse club, Team 91.

With a season average of 2.3 goals per game and a career average of 3.3, the math is in O'Keefe's favor.

"I've been a head coach for 21 years, coaching longer than that, and I've been involved with lacrosse my entire life and, I've said this before, I've been around, played with or coached some really dynamic players and shooters," Penn State coach Jeff Tambroni said. "I don't know if I've ever been around, played with or coached a scorer quite like Mac O'Keefe.

"In all my years, he tops that list of guys that's just as dynamic as it gets and I think not only is it an incredible record to even put your name around but I think it's really symbolic and representative of what kind of time and effort Mack has put in, and the talent that he represents."

Yet, O'Keefe, like his coach, Tambroni, didn't want to say with certainty that he could or would break the record this season. Anything, as they saw last year, could happen. "I think it could happen, yeah, for sure," O'Keefe said. "I think we have some incredible guys surrounding me and they make it all happen for me. So, I'm really lucky to be in this position, and I think it'd be a really cool accomplishment but I just want to win lacrosse games and win a national championship. It's what I came here to do."

It was through O'Keefe would break it last year when the numbers were more favorable before the season was canceled, during a 12-hour bus ride back to State College from Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. He was on a tear, scoring 28 goals in seven games.

If -- and, at this point, it's more of a when -- it does happen before O'Keefe's second senior season ends, he'll appreciate it just as much.

"It would be very special. I love playing lacrosse. Lacrosse has been my life forever," O'Keefe said. "I think getting to the point where I'm at today and then maybe this record is broken, sometime in the future, I think it would be really special for not only myself but my family, as well.

"It's a testament to all the stuff they've done for me, all the time, money, and just effort into getting me to where I am today. So, I think being able to share that with them would be really special."

Whether it happens Saturday at home or next weekend in Columbus, Ohio, his parents, Brian and Lynann, will be in attendance, as they have been all season.

They don't talk about the record much with Mac -- or with each other. Brian thinks Lynann and Mac discussed it briefly once, but that's it. Tambroni hasn't talked about it with Mac, either. In fact, Tambroni didn't know Mac was closing in on the record until before this season. It's been a long time coming, though, Brian O'Keefe said, and has been a slow crawl toward it this season, especially.

If -- and when -- Mac does score his 213th career goal, his dad, a former professional box lacrosse player, said there'll be a celebration someway, somehow.

"It'll be pretty emotional internally," Brian said. "I'll try to keep it down in check, but it'll be a pretty emotional moment for my family and I, for sure."

When Brian watches Mac play, he doesn't see the prolific scorer or the future lacrosse legend. He sees a little kid, in the back yard for two hours every night, shooting the ball on repeat, "never thinking that one day this would be something that could actually happen."

It nearly didn't. Mac O'Keefe was a goalie until the eighth grade and then switched to attacker full time. He always had a knack for shooting, his dad said, but didn't start his prep career with the gusto that he finished it.

When O'Keefe verbally committed to Penn State after ninth grade, Tambroni had limited expectations for the future king of goals. He figured O'Keefe would be a contributor, at best. Those expectations changed during O'Keefe's junior and senior seasons at Syosset High School, as he filled out, got stronger, became more assertive, all of which contributed to a stronger shot. By time he graduated high school, O'Keefe was an All-American honorable mention and also led Nassau County with 63 goals in 2015, a precursor for his production at Penn State.

"We thought a much higher level of potential was capable," Tambroni said.

Evidence of that came early in O'Keefe's freshman year during a defensive drill where goalies rotated to four different nets, with two shooters awaiting them. At three of the four goals, the save percentage was around 50 to 60 percent, Tambroni remembered. At O'Keefe's, it was around 25 to 30 percent.

"You knew at that point, when he was a freshman, that we had something special there," Tambroni said.

O'Keefe proved that his freshman season, when he set a school record with 51 goals. He topped that two years later, as a junior, when he scored 78 and led Penn State to the 2019 Final Four.

Then came 2020.

O'Keefe continued the torrid pace of 2019 by averaging four goals per game until March 11. The day before, Penn State beat Furman 22-7 to improve to 5-2, and was hitting a stride, O'Keefe recalled.

During a 12-hour bus ride back to campus in the middle of spring break, O'Keefe and the rest of his teammates began seeing news fill their Twitter feeds. The Ivy League was canceling the rest of its season. The Patriot League did the same thing. O'Keefe knew what was coming. Shortly thereafter, the Big Ten ended the rest of the winter and all the spring seasons. The bus pulled into a gas station for a short pit stop and Tambroni, who struggled to find the right words because in his 21 years as a head coach, he had never dealt with anything like that, gathered the seniors.

"It really just came from the heart," he said.

There were tears and hugs, and a lot of uncertainty, especially for seniors like O'Keefe. He had already started looking for a job in sales in the cyber security field but also planned on playing professional lacrosse. He graduated with a communications degree and went in the first round of the National Lacrosse League's September draft.

Over the next 18 days, O'Keefe didn't know what his future would hold and, he says now, never really gave it a thought. He spent that time with his teammates, looking back on what they did as a group and spending what, they thought, could be their last days together.

The day after the NCAA announced spring sports athletes would be eligible for an extra year of eligibility on March 30, O'Keefe was in Tambroni's office. He was coming back.

"The second that the news came out that we'd be getting another year, I texted coach Tambroni, 'Can I meet with you tomorrow?'" O'Keefe said. "And I was in his office at, probably, 8 a.m. We were just talking about the plan moving forward, so there really was no hesitation. Having the opportunity to come back and finish what I started was something I've been really fortunate and grateful for."

Because of it, he'll be able to chase down history.

If -- or, again, when -- it happens, Tambroni is sure some people will want an asterisk next to O'Keefe's record. To him, though, it's not necessary. Tambroni is also a believer that it likely would've happened last season, but he looks at how many games it'll take O'Keefe to reach the record as the deciding factor in whether the record will need any sort of punctuation next to it. Should O'Keefe break the record Saturday, it will be his 64th career game.

Guterding did it in 75.

"Incredible," Tambroni said. "If he's been given the same amount of opportunity, playing in a really challenging league over four-and-a-half years -- but, really, if you combine it, it becomes four years of game experience, right? -- I hope no one puts an asterisk next to that or says anything other than what the reality is, that he's done it in probably the same amount of time or less than those guys in the top three, four or five."

At this point, for O'Keefe's career to continue beyond the Big Ten tournament, Penn State will likely have to get the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. If that doesn't happen, then one of, if not the most prolific careers in college lacrosse history may see its conclusion in early May.

It may not be the way O'Keefe wants to go out, even with the all-time goals record in hand, but he'll take it over not even having the chance to play again in 2021.

"It's awesome," he said. "If it all ended last year, midway through the season, and I wasn't able to finish out my senior year, it would leave a bad taste in my mouth. Just not only for myself but the other guys who know they would never play lacrosse again. It would just not be a great feeling, so having the chance to come back has been huge and I'm really grateful."