As the wave of congratulations poured in on social media and onto his cellphone that ran out of battery back inside Penn State’s locker room, O’Keefe remained focused on the task on the field. The Nittany Lions still trailed by one. With 3:02 remaining in the second quarter of a Big Ten battle against Michigan, O’Keefe received a pass from TJ Malone at the top of the key and unleashed his trademark underhand stroke.
The ball was in and out of his stick in less than a second before it found the back of the net and tied the score at 6. It was O’Keefe’s 214th career goal.
— Penn State Men’s Lacrosse (@PennStateMLAX) April 16, 2021
There were more. On a cloudy and windy afternoon in State College, the spark we saw only flickers of through most of this spring shined on Senior Day. During an afternoon when the scoreboard at Panzer Stadium had repeated technical difficulties, Penn State’s star fifth-year attackman played lights out.
O’Keefe took 13 shots and scored six goals, including the game-winner that broke a tie at 13 with three seconds remaining in overtime. The tally avenged Penn State’s loss to Michigan from earlier this season and put O’Keefe’s career mark at 217 goals.
He entered the game one shy goal shy of Justin Guterding’s 212 goals at Duke from 2015-18. Guterding needed 75 games to score 212 times. O’Keefe broke the record in 64 games.
But the two-time captain who’s shot is the model of efficiency regarded the talk and hype surrounding the record as little more than a distraction. He sounds uneasy detailing his own accomplishments as if the desire to not elevate himself above the team is inscribed in his genetic code. He’d rather list the players who helped him get to this point than bask in the glow of the statistical distinction.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard the words ‘goals record’ come out of his mouth,’” said six-year Penn State senior Dylan Foulds, who didn’t realize O’Keefe was two goals away from breaking the record last week until another teammate informed him. “I truly sometimes don’t appreciate how phenomenal he is because I’m around him every day, but he also never portrays that image to anyone. He’s not the type of guy that wants to be in the spotlight.”
“Like I’ve been saying this whole season, I haven’t really tried to let that affect me too much,” O’Keefe said after the win that improved Penn State’s record to 3-6. “I just want to win this game. It was a big weekend for all our seniors and all our guys not coming back next year. Obviously, it hasn’t been the best season for our team, but I knew this was going to be a special one for us if we were able to come out with the win. I was willing to do everything I could to make that happen.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard the words ‘goals record’ come out of his mouth.’” — Dylan Foulds
O’Keefe credits his parents, Lynann and Brian, for ingraining the importance of humbleness and an outlook that seems at odds with someone who’s now the NCAA goals king.
Before Brian O’Keefe played four seasons in the National Lacrosse League for the New York Saints and Anaheim Storm, he tallied 251 career points at Fairleigh-Dickinson — the second most in program history. Few of those came during his junior year. After the team’s starting goalie didn’t make it “academically” to the spring, Brian O’Keefe stepped in between the pipes, a position he played his first three years at Syosset High School on Long Island.
He set FDU’s single-game saves record when he made 45 against Rutgers in 1987.
“I wasn’t thinking about it personally,” he said, reflecting on the experience. “I just thought the team needed a goalie, so I did it.”
While the thought of a Mac O’Keefe shot now probably sends shivers down goalies’ spines, O’Keefe spent the majority of his time in the crease throughout his PAL days before making the switch full time to attack in the eighth grade.
“When the shots started coming upwards of 100 miles an hour, I didn’t really want any part of that,” he said with a laugh.
Like most kids, O’Keefe was told that overhand was the proper shooting form. The second practice ended, though, he went off on his own with a bucket of balls and started experimenting. He believes those countless hours on his own are where a lot of his habits formed. High shots on the goal arranged at the end of O’Keefe family’s narrow, rectangular backyard in Syosset also bore the risk of shattered neighbors’ windows, so Mac tried to keep them low — like his OT winner last Friday.
Broken fence panels were the price for progress. O’Keefe still has a picture of the damage saved on his phone.
But O’Keefe’s dad, who works as an agent for State Farm and coached his son both in box and field lacrosse all the way up through high school on Team 91, always stressed that scoring was far from the sole barometer for success or leadership.
“The thing I’m actually most proud of, specifically in lacrosse, is not the goals record,” Brian O’Keefe said a day before his son broke it. “It’s how hard he works riding and working off-ball and trying to help the offense that way.”
Grant Ament understands how fun it is to watch O’Keefe score.
“Trust me,” Ament said last week. “I watched it for a while.”
He likes to say that things got pretty easy pretty quickly for himself once he started playing alongside O’Keefe. The duo combined for 222 points in 2019 when Penn State made its first trip to the Final Four.
Ament also knows there’s a big difference between a shooter and a scorer. O’Keefe falls into the latter category. There’s his knack for the ball and his release that Ament calls the quickest and most deceptive he’s ever seen.
Foulds, who hails from Port Coquitlam (B.C.) and carved out a starting role in State College as an inside finisher, jokes that in 2018, about 10 of his 11 assists came off passes to O’Keefe when he thought the Nittany Lions were just swinging the ball around on offense.
“What do you look for when you’re feeding Mac?” Ament said players at Penn State will now often ask him.
“Dude, Mac is one of those guys where if he flashes his stick and you make eye contact with him, you throw him the ball and let him do whatever he wants,” Ament replies. “That was my rule.”
But Penn State’s first ever Tewaaraton Award finalist who dished out 192 assists in his college career and was the Premier Lacrosse League’s rookie of the year last summer explained that if you want to truly appreciate O’Keefe’s play, you have to go beyond the stat sheet. Look inbetween the lines.
Take the groundball O’Keefe collected then tip-toed along the sideline to preserve the possession that led to his 214th goal. Or how he sprinted over midfield after a faceoff and harassed Michigan’s Nick Rowlett to prevent an open look in the waning seconds of the first half. There are too many other examples to list.
“Coach [Tambroni] always said there’s not a lot of secrets to the sauce with any great player,” Ament recalled. “I don’t think it’s different with Mac.”
Most times when Foulds walks into the apartment he shares with O’Keefe and a couple other senior teammates, he often hears fifth-year senior goalie Colby Kneese screaming because O’Keefe scored yet another goal on him — in the NHL ‘21 videogame. O’Keefe plays as the New York Islanders whenever he can and has few peers on the (digital) ice. But after practice, even after Foulds spends 20 minutes doing individual work, he’s come to expect that O’Keefe will get back to the apartment much later.
Amongst the challenges this spring has posed with its myriad protocols and regulations, O’Keefe has had to concentrate his extra efforts into smaller post practice windows. That’s usually around 30 minutes. He’d prefer an hour.
“He’s not the loudest guy out there, but when he’s on the field, you can tell there’s a certain focus and seriousness,” Foulds said. “It’s no nonsense. He’s coming out to practice every single day with the same focus and mentality and hasn’t wavered away from that this season in any shape or form.”
The attackman whose stats will take a while to be surpassed competes as if he’s still vying for a roster spot. Ament said one of the things he respects the most about O’Keefe is that he approaches practice every day with something to prove.
“The other side of Mac that I think probably goes understated at times is his effort,” Tambroni said.
He called O’Keefe the hardest riding players he’s coached at State College and that “he’s the best shooter I’ve ever coached because he just works so hard at it.”