June 25, 2014

Team of Rivals at Core of U.S. Men's Attack

by Mark Macyk | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | WorldLacrosse2014

Both Steele Stanwick and Rob Pannell serve as initiating/distributing attackmen. But they aren't rivals in any way other than their vying for the same role in the Team USA's offensive schemes. (John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com)

Abraham Lincoln never got the chance to see a World Lacrosse Championship played on American soil, but the Great Emancipator would certainly have appreciated the offense Team USA could send to Denver.

Like Lincoln's famed presidential cabinet, which brought together three of his former political opponents for a common goal, the American attack unit, as it stands now, is a Team of Rivals.

At the center, America's Secretary of Offense, is its quarterback, Rob Pannell. And if the discussion is that of rivals coming together, then it can begin in only one place.

Type "Rob Pannell v-" into Google and it will suggest "Rob Pannell vs. Steele Stanwick" even before "Rob Pannell video." To many, the juxtaposition is the defining story of college lacrosse over the last half decade.

But to the two guys at the center of it, rivalry is a relative term. Just because they happened to be excellent lacrosse players, who happened to be born at the same time, and then battle it out at the top of the NCAA rankings and Tewaaraton Award races, doesn't mean they never got along.

"We always laugh about it," Pannell said. "People perceive it that way and it made a good story for lacrosse, so we're all for it. It's great. We're actually pretty good friends."

They like each other and it turns out they really like playing alongside each other. Which is something many wondered could even work logistically. Pannell and Stanwick traditionally serve the same role on the field, directing their offense from behind the cage.

That could have set up a new rivalry, with feuding generals battling to run the same unit from the same spot on the national team. But when they finally got the chance to run together, toward the end of the Champion Challenge in January, something great happened.

"It worked really well to be honest," Stanwick said. "Just knowing the type of player Rob is, I felt I could anticipate more and more. We do a good job of just knowing where the other wants to go and creating space. We're both capable of knowing whether the other has a pick or not and creating an outlet."

Turns out great lacrosse players will find a way to make it work. To Pannell, the only issue is they hadn't been paired up sooner

"We said 'It's about time,'" Pannell said. "'Finally.' Everyone expects us to be in the same role, but Steele can be the quarterback of an offense and I can be the quarterback of an offense. Steele can score goals and I can score goals. We can do whatever is asked of us. We're not just guys who are behind the cage. We're quarterbacks, we're dodgers and feeders."

That sense of anything is possible when these guys are on the field together is shared by other members of the attack. Even some who could also have once been considered their rivals.

"I got a couple of runs with both of them," said Marcus Holman, who played against Stanwick in the ACC and finished behind Pannell in the 2013 Tewaaraton race. "You're in there with two of arguably the greatest feeders in the NCAA over the past five years. If you're playing smart, you're going to be open. I just have to make sure I'm catching their feeds."

The tryout process featured a lot lacrosse, and not much time for off-the-field bonding, but they did go out for a team dinner in Orlando. There the squad went around the table, and started sharing locker room stories. If there ever existed any rivalries, they vanished in that moment.

"That's what's so great about lacrosse," Holman said. "You may not like a guy when you played against him in college because of a rivalry or whatever, but it's just this great fraternity of guys. Everyone was very welcoming."

Since that time, life has intervened and it's been difficult for the new teammates to stay in touch, especially in the spring with various lacrosse seasons in full swing.

This story originally appears in the June 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine. Begin your subscription by joining US Lacrosse today!

"Everyone's running in a million different directions," Stanwick said. "It's tough right now."

But there is an e-mail chain and a group text message that Holman and Kyle Hartzell predominantly try to keep the chatter going on. As the tournament grows closer, the unit is eager to get back together and expect those conversations to pick up.

"I just really think that you need great chemistry off the field as well," Holman said. "When you have great chemistry it translates and you want to play harder. I tried to make that the environment in Chapel Hill and it's something I'm going to continue to do, to just bring that energy."

The roles fall into place. Holman as the wildcard, the swingman who could fill any role, and the invaluable glue guy, keeping morale up. Kevin Leveille, the oldest player — 32 and a few months on defenseman Lee Zink — among the 30 in the running to make Team USA's final 23-man squad, and Ned Crotty and Brendan Mundorf, both members of the gold medal team in 2010, are wise veterans. Garrett Thul, all 6-foot-4, 240 pounds of him, is a matchup nightmare. Pannell, Stanwick, or both, the quarterbacks.

Behind it all, directing the offense, is Penn State coach and Team USA assistant Jeff Tambroni, the man who brought Pannell to Cornell when Tambroni coached there. Amidst all these former rivals, stands one of Pannell's oldest allies.

"I was devastated when he left," Pannell said. "But we talked about it afterward, that there'd be a possibility he'd be coaching me again and wearing the red, white and blue. Obviously that would be a dream come true."

Pannell actually played in front of his old coach for the first time a year and a half ago, with Cornell at the Boiardi Classic. He scored off a ride and saw Tambroni coming toward him from the end line.

"He goes, 'Are you gonna dodge today or what?'" Pannell said. "And I kind of smiled. The next play I took the ball and dodged and scored a goal and looked at him. 'Is that what you want?' He knows how to get my competitive juices flowing and hit me in the right spot. That's what I love about him."

Since leaving Cornell, Pannell has been making his living full-time in lacrosse as a member of the New York Lizards and running clinics with fellow national team member (and Lizard and Cornell alum) Max Seibald. He said having the FIL World Championship tournament in Denver will be huge, not just for guys like him trying to make a living, but for the game in general.

"There's so much buzz around it," Pannell said. "I think the only people who aren't going to be there are my parents."

That's because Pannell's sister is getting married back on Long Island the week after, so there are preparations to be done.

If all goes according to plan, America's quarterback will be at the wedding as a world champion, thanks to a group of guys that can never be confused for rivals again.

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