May 22, 2013

Lambrecht: No Stopping the Big Red Machine

by Gary Lambrecht |

The otherwise sturdy defenses of Maryland and Ohio State couldn't slow Cornell down at all through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. Will anyone be able to this weekend?

Watching college lacrosse's version of the Big Red Machine stomp its competition in College Park, Md. on back-to-back NCAA tournament Saturdays has left me wondering.

If the sturdy and tested defenses of Maryland and Ohio State were turned into Swiss cheese by Cornell's powerhouse attack combination of Rob Pannell and Steve Mock, what will the Big Red's opponents do to change that this weekend at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia?

I don't mean to dismiss Duke's chances of beating Cornell in Saturday's national semifinal, not with the Blue Devils' scoring weapons and junior faceoff man Brendan Fowler bringing his formidable skill to the party. Assuming Cornell gets by Duke — and I think the Big Red is too explosive, balanced, experienced and driven to lose this one — I don't mean to diminish the Syracuse-Denver survivor's chances to get it done on Memorial Day.

But after witnessing the Big Red's takeover of Byrd Stadium with a pair of such thoroughly complete performances, I might be falling under the Cornell spell. After watching Cornell bash its way to its fourth final four in seven years and first since 2010, with Pannell and Mock transforming Maryland's home field into their personal playground, I keep wondering.

If the Big Red plays at or close to its current level, who is going to take this group down?

Although it guarantees nothing this weekend, as Cornell takes aim at the school's first NCAA crown since 1977, the unseeded Big Red (14-3) has made everyone else look ordinary in this otherwise competitive tournament. On a quarterfinal weekend that yielded three, one-goal decisions, Cornell squashed No. 3 seed Ohio State by 10, a week after overwhelming sixth-seeded Maryland by eight.

Here are some other snapshots of Cornell's two-round laugher. It scored 16 goals in each tournament victory, surrendered a total of 14 and shot a scorching 47.1 percent (32-for-68). The Big Red swarmed to ground balls, scooping 82 while losing only 57. Faceoff man Doug Tesoriero won 31 of 49 draws (63.3 percent). The defense, led by seniors Jason Noble and goalie A.J. Fiore, was suffocating — that is, when it was tested.

Cornell, which easily leads the NCAA with an average victory margin of six goals, is about more than Pannell and Mock. But clearly, they constitute the best tag team going in May. They make you think of Powell-Springer, Danowski-Greer, Ward-Rubeor.

I still shake my head at the way Pannell-Mock reduced the normally tenacious defenses of Maryland and Ohio State to confused, pedestrian units. The duo shot a combined 17-for-29 (58.6 percent) against the Terps and Buckeyes.

"It's just about putting myself in situations and knowing what Rob is going to do," said Mock, who leads the NCAA with 59 goals after shredding Ohio State's man-to-man and zone defenses for seven scores with clever off-ball movement and deadly finishing. Three of those goals came courtesy of pinpoint passes from Pannell.

Through the first two rounds, Pannell (six goals, nine assists) has been vintage No. 3 — one of the most devastating combinations of dodger-feeder-shooter the Division I game has ever seen. Mock (11 goals) scored all seven times in the first half against the Buckeyes, tying Cornell legend Mike French's NCAA playoff record.

Does anyone even pay attention to the "unseeded" label the Big Red is bringing to Philly?

"Were we surprised that we were unseeded? Maybe a little bit. But not to the point where we feel like it's extra motivation for our guys. There's enough motivation coming into the tournament to prove we belong," Cornell coach Ben DeLuca said. "At this point, seeding doesn't matter. It's win or go home. I think we're playing our best lacrosse. I think we can play better."

If Pannell raises his game this weekend, Duke, Syracuse and Denver can forget about stopping the train from Ithaca.

"Were we surprised that we were unseeded? Maybe a little bit."

— Cornell coach Ben DeLuca

Once Pannell decided to return for a fifth season, after obtaining a medical redshirt waiver following last year's shortened season that ended with a broken left foot, he was pointing toward a year like this. Pannell, who was taken by the then-Long Island (now New York) Lizards as the No. 1 pick in the 2012 MLL draft, ranks second in Division I with 95 points.

"Practicing against [Pannell] is a bear, trying to defend him and account for the things he can do," DeLuca said. "I couldn't be more proud that he decided to come back and rejoin his team and forgo some great [professional] opportunities elsewhere."

With the big stage awaiting him at "The Linc," Pannell is within six points of tying former Duke great Matt Danowski (now an assistant at Duke under his father, coach John Danowski) for the all-time NCAA lead at 353 career points. Would it shock anyone if Pannell owned the record by halftime against the Blue Devils?

Still, the road to a title likely won't be the cakewalk that the first two rounds provided. Duke is capable of settling into a shootout with the Big Red. The same goes for Denver, which happens to be playing its best defense of the season. And then there is defensive-minded, upstate rival Syracuse, the most resourceful, gritty group Coach John Desko has had since the Orange stole the title from the Big Red in 2009.

But I keep looking at that 16-man senior class from Cornell, and wondering how they will be derailed. I keep looking at the game's best player and wondering how Pannell can be contained in a game-changing way.

"I'm only as good as the five guys around me," Pannell said. "I'm happy to take on any defenseman and welcome any challenge with open arms."

This will be the third final four in the past five seasons for Cornell, and Pannell was part of the most painful ending in that stretch. He was a true freshman on the 2009 squad that played in the school's first title game since 1988. Cornell controlled Syracuse for over 55 minutes, before collapsing at Gillette Stadium and losing a 10-9 heartbreaker.

Everything Pannell has done in the past two weekends suggests that, in his last collegiate go-round, he will not allow anything like that to happen again. will have complete coverage of championship weekend, beginning Thursday with media day and continuing throughout the weekend with live blogs, post-game reaction and more. Be sure to follow @LacrosseMag on Twitter for instant updates as well.

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