Cornell provided an incredible story to follow last season, a resilient ride took Big Red all the way to one of the most exciting championship games ever. While many touted them as a solid team and a formidable foe, few thought they would have been just seconds away from winning the national championship.
The real surprise for the 2009 Big Red was the discovery of the nation’s best rookie in Rob Pannell. After little recruiting buzz and a post-graduate year at the Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, Pannell exploded onto the Division I scene. Tallying 67 points on 25 goals and 42 assists, he led the Big Red in scoring while finishing in the top five nationally.
After such a sensational rookie season, Pannell will need to replicate his success from last year to push the Big Red deep into May again. LAX.com talked to Pannell about his immergence last season, his arrival at Cornell, and how he and the Big Red will move forward despite staggering losses from graduation.
LAX.COM: Most freshmen that make big impacts are guys who have been tracked and talked about since early in their high school careers. You not only led all freshmen in scoring, but also were in the top 5 nationally with 67 points, yet you were mostly an unknown until the season got rolling. How?
Rob Pannell:Coming out of high school , I took a post graduate year at Deerfield Academy, but while I was in high school I was a late bloomer. When I was a freshman I didn’t make the varsity team; I was the only one of my friends to not make it. The next year as a sophomore I ended up starting on varsity…I was productive. My junior year, same thing, I was productive. I had around 40 points my sophomore year and then 70 as a junior. Between my junior and senior year I really matured as a person and physically as well. I began working out and more stuff to improve my physical strength along with my lacrosse abilities, and I came out my senior year and had 130 points. I think that’s when I really realized that I wanted to play at a higher level, on the next level of lacrosse, which is college, and I needed to take that extra year at Deerfield Academy. I went to Deerfield, and I had 99 points there, breaking the school record. I think it was that, those two years, my senior year of high school and that extra year at Deerfield, really allowed me to change, mature mentally and physically and my lacrosse skills as well.
In high school you get recruited your sophomore and junior years mainly, and I was never really highly recruited by big time schools, so I kind of had a chip on my shoulder because of that. I think going to Deerfield Academy allowed me to weigh my options a little bit and look into schools that I would definitely be interested in going to and playing at that next level.
So how did Cornell wind up being your collegiate destination?
While at Deerfield J. J. Gilbane and Chip Daugherty were already committed to Cornell for lacrosse…and they were going on their visit on a weekend, and I guess Coach [Tambroni] had asked if they had known anybody else that might be interested in recruiting. They mentioned my name, and I had shot Coach Tambroni an email telling him that I was at Deerfield taking a postgraduate year. I told him a little bit about me academically and athletically and sent him a highlight tape…He looked at it and immediately emailed me, and we set up a visit for me to come. I fell in love with the school on my first visit, talked to Coach Tambroni soon after and made my decision.
You weren’t heavily recruited in high school. Your game didn’t really blossom until the end of high school and then your freshman year. You outperformed all of those blue-chip recruits last year who have been tracked since their sophomore years. Do you see yourself as a model or example for the guys who are late bloomers, who need a little time to grow and become great players?
I think absolutely. I think if they knew my story and how it all happened and how I got to Cornell I think it’d definitely be inspiring for some of those kinds that maybe haven’t been so productive so far in high school. I was definitely one of those kids. I’ve had kids email me and contact me asking me about a postgraduate year knowing that I had done that, and how it was helpful, what do I recommend to do to get recruited and stuff. Obviously taking that postgraduate year was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life, and I definitely think that that could be inspiring to kids.
What allowed you to step right into the college game and produce at such a high level?
I have very high expectations for myself…My goal coming to Cornell was to play and too potentially start. When Coach Tambroni told me I could potentially start, then that became my new goal, and I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I reached that new goal. In playing and in starting, I am not happy unless I am producing for the team and helping us win. When you have guys around you that have been on the team for four years like John Glynn, Max Seibald, Chris Finn, Rocco Romero, they kind of help you really adjust to the program and allowed me to adjust at my own pace and on my own, without any trouble.
Did you surprise yourself with your production last year? To have high personal expectations is one thing, but being the top scorer on the national runner-up is another.
I guess I kind of surprised myself in a way, but going into the season I had all those goals for myself: Ivy League Rookie of the Year, making All-American, and as far as the team goals, Ivy League championship, making it to the Final Four, making it to the national championship. I made all those goals with myself one day before our first game started. I was surprised in the sense that my whole life I’ve always been the guy that no one really saw, didn’t really get a lot of press, and I started to get all this recognition, and it was different, but at the same time I kind of expected it from myself.
You mentioned all those seniors and great players like Seibald and Glynn. What did you learn from being on a team with those guys last year, not just in terms of the game, but preparation, leadership, etc.?
Watching Max be the sole captain of the team, and the way he handled himself around the team. He knew the right times when he had to speak up; he knew when he had to make a big play. Then just role players like Rocco Romero and Chris Finn, they knew their roles within their team and within their senior class….Off the field, just the way that they welcomed us as a class. Our whole team chemistry just allowed our team to come together.…Just the way they did that was monumental to our success last year.
What kind of experience do you think you gained by being a freshman and being a contributing member of a team that was about four seconds away from winning a national title? Is there a lot there to guide and motivate you through the next three seasons?
There’s no bigger game that anyone could play in than a national championship game. As far as that, our freshman class, freshmen last year, sophomore’s this year, juniors and seniors this year, we’ve all played in that championship game. I think it prepares us for any game … Just knowing that, knowing the level that we have to work out at in the offseason, and when the season comes around the level that we have to practice at and the level that we have to compete at every day in practice and on game days in order to get back to that championship game.
Ivy League players always talk about how big Ivy League games are, particularly players from Princeton and Cornell talk about how big that rivalry is. What did you think of your first season of Ivy League play?
They are the biggest games, the biggest rivalries that we have apart from teams like Syracuse. When you play a team like Princeton and Brown and Harvard, you know you have to prepare more for those teams because that Ivy League Championship, winning that means the most to the Ivy League teams. That’s what your main goal is going into the season…You can’t take any team in the Ivy League for granted, and that’s the main thing, because every team has a potential of beating anybody on any day, and that’s what makes the Ivy League so competitive.
Looking at your own skill set, what are things that you think you do well?
I think my feeding, being a feeder, is what I do best. I always have my head up. I think that’s what’s important about being a feeder, always having your head up and being able to make a pass at the right time. I think I can score if needed… I’ve developed skills that allow me to see the play developing and kind of anticipate where that next pass is going to be or if a guy is going to be open in a few seconds I’ll know to hold onto the ball for a little longer and wait and be patient and then feed it to him.
What aspects of your game would you like to keep improving?
I think definitely my shooting, just being more comfortable around the cage, just in finishing. And dodging, you can always improve in dodging, just different ways of dodging and what not.
How did you see your skill set and game develop as the year went on? Were you focusing on certain things and accelerate your growth?
I think it was just, you know, starting out, I had played with the other guys around me in the fall and we worked out in the offseason, but just having the game experience with them and just them getting more used to the way I play, and me getting more used to the way they play just allowed my game to really develop. Then I started having my teammates have confidence in me in making plays and my coaches as well, I think that just really added to my confidence and allowed me to do things that I probably have never done before. … Just them having confidence around me and trusting me with the ball in my stick, and knowing that I’ll make the right decision, I think is what helped us excel at the end of the season.
Speaking of being a feeder, your numbers in terms of goals and assists are almost a foil of Ryan Hurley’s. You guys really developed into that feeder/finisher connection. How did that come about, and how helpful is that?
Going into last year, we knew that we were going to have two years together. We worked hard all fall and all winter in individual sessions and with coach, just getting to learn each other’s abilities and things on the field like where each other is going to be, at what point he is going to do this and that, just getting to know each other was real big to our success last season. I think Ryan’s my favorite target on the field, and I’m looking for him at all times. I think that chemistry that we developed last year is just going to increase this year, and it already has increased, and I think we’re going to be relied on a lot more this year because we don’t have the midfield that we had last year. Our chemistry and our knowledge of each other is going to be that much more important this year than last year.
Graduation really hit this team hard with 16 seniors leaving, many being starters, key contributors, or stars. How are you guys going to deal with that? Where does that leave you in terms of leading the offense?
I think you’re definitely correct in that there is going to be a lot more pressure on me and I’ll have to handle the ball more and defenses will be focusing on me and Ryan probably a little bit more than they did last year. I think my role on the offense stays the same. We have scorers coming in at the midfield and at the attack that can still put the ball in the back of the net, and I can still be able to feed them. I might be looking to score a little bit more, create for myself, but at the same time I’m a feeder and I love to feed and that’s what I’ve always done. I think also with them leaving I’ve taken more of a leadership role on the team and within the offense, just being more vocal, recognizing when people are doing things wrong and making them aware of what they have to do and how they can improve their game. I think that’s the biggest thing from this year to last year is just my leadership role. I have to mature very quickly. I’m a sophomore but I’m still taking a big leadership role within our offense.
What does Cornell have to do this year to enjoy similar success as last year?
We have a ton of work to do in these next couple weeks…We have a lot of new players on the offense and some new freshmen in the defensive end, and I think we just need to get used to playing with each other first. With such a young team I think we have to take it one game at a time. Preparing for one team at a time. Getting better everyday. We have this motto where we want to be better than the team that came out here yesterday. I think that’s what we’re trying to do, is get better everyday and take it from there.