January 4, 2012

LM NCAA Division I Men's Preseason Player of the Year: Rob Pannell

The Cornell Career That Almost Wasn't

by Chris R. Vaccaro | LaxMagazine.com

Rob Pannell has always played with a chip on his shoulder. He was cut from his high school varsity team as a freshman and even after scoring 130 points as a senior, Pannell fielded only two Division I scholarship offers.
© Dave Burbank

When Michael Jordan was a sophomore at Emsley A. Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C., he was cut from the varsity basketball team because he was too small. You know how that panned out.

When Rob Pannell was a freshman at Smithtown West High School on Long Island, he too was cut from varsity and had to play JV lacrosse.

"From that point on, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder," Pannell said.

Pannell eventually led Long Island in scoring as a senior, attended prep school at Deerfield (Mass.) Academy and went to Cornell, where he has become a household name in lacrosse.

What a generic rendering of Pannell's biography won't tell you, however, is how extraordinary the journey has been to this point — how the best player in college lacrosse today went largely unnoticed in high school and how he still routinely manages to find letdowns in his career.

"I've always had to work for what I've gotten, and because of that, I'm never satisfied," Pannell said. "I still don't think I'm the best I can be. There's always something to work on."

In high school, Pannell spent countless hours perfecting his craft either at the school or in his backyard. He lifted weights used lawn chairs as defenders when he worked on dodging and slides.

"It started that continuous drive," he said. "I was really able to get my skills down to where I wanted. Then I grew physically and matured."

But even after scoring 130 points as the top senior on Long Island in 2007, all he had to show for it were offers from Towson and Quinnipiac. He verbally committed to Towson, but changed his mind after visiting campus and eventually signed with Quinnipiac.

"Nothing really about Quinnipiac crossed my mind, and then I talked to my parents about it," he said of having higher standards for his college game. "It took 121 points later for me to realize."

Enter Pannell's uncle, James C. Metzger. He attended his nephew's opening game in 2007, a dominating victory over nationally ranked Garden City in which Pannell scored four goals and dished five assists.

"I walked away from that game and shook my head," said Metzger, who was an All-American lacrosse player at Hofstra in 1980. "I said, 'This is extraordinary.' I really felt he should being going to one of the top schools in the country. I didn't realize it would be so challenging."

According to Metzger and Pannell, Quinnipiac would not give him his official release to play elsewhere. To this day, they say, Quinnipiac has not issued his release. Metzger attended Navy Prep in Newport, R.I., prior to playing at Hofstra, so he knew the benefit playing post-grad.

Pannell broke a 40 year old scoring record at Deerfield with 99 points in 2008. Plenty of eyes opened, but only Ivy League schools could pursue him because of his Quinnipiac commitment. Scholarship programs could not.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't play [at Deerfield]," Pannell said. "It opened my eyes to a whole different world that I wasn't aware existed. It allowed me to step outside my comfort zone."

Pannell made it to Cornell and has not looked back. He has scored 236 points — 89 last year as a junior — and has been a part of two final fours. The Big Red lost to Syracuse in the NCAA championship game his freshman season and to Notre Dame in the 2010 semifinals. Cornell fell to Virginia last year in the quarterfinals.

Historically speaking, Pannell is approaching some monumental numbers. He could end his career in the top five among all-time scorers in Division I. Duplicating last year's performance would put him No. 3 behind Air Force's Joe Vasta (343) and Duke's Matt Danowski (353).

"The number I'm focused on is 296," said Pannell, referring to the Cornell record held by Hall of Famer Mike French, "but I try not to think about the numbers. I just can't. Everyone loves to score, have the most points in the country. If I had 40 points this year and we won the national championship, I'd be the happiest man in the world, and I mean that."

The individual honors have piled up at an intense rate: three-time first team All-Ivy, two-time Ivy League Player of the Year, three-time All-American, two-time USILA Jack Turnbull Award winner as the nation's top attackman, 2011 USILA Lt. Ray Enners Award winner as the nation's top player, plus ESPY and Tewaaraton Award nominations.

"I've always had to work for what I've gotten, and because of that, I'm never satisfied."

— Cornell senior attackman Rob Pannell

"He's in rarified company," Metzger said. "To have accomplished what Robert Pannell has accomplished, it's one of those impeccable resumes. You have a special player here, once in a decade, once in a generation."

Cornell head coach Ben DeLuca identified Pannell as a triple threat to dodge, feed and shoot. "You're going to see Rob take the next step in the evolution of his game," he said. "He has more of a complete game with the ability to ride and create havoc on the ride."

Pannell will likely lock horns again with Virginia's Steele Stanwick in the race for the Tewaaraton Award. He said he holds no grudges and respects Stanwick.

"I believe it is less of an individual award then it is a team award, and it's being the best player on the team that goes the farthest and goes to the national championship game," Pannell said. "I figured he was going to win it after he beat us [in the quarterfinals] and after they won the next game. I'm used to that stuff, not winning things or getting awards. I'm going to brush it off and continue to work as hard as I have to, just as I did in high school. Whatever award I get is not going to change the way I work."

That is, unless you're talking about a national championship.

"The seniors this year got together a list of goals," Pannell said. "We want to go undefeated. We think we have that caliber team this year. We have a senior class that has been through a lot. We will know how to handle the situation. It's do or die." LM

LaxMagazine.com MD1 PPOY Fan Vote

Steele Stanwick, Virginia

Rob Pannell, Cornell

Mark Matthews, Denver

John Ranagan, Johns Hopkins

comments powered by Disqus

More Headlines