When Paul Rabil is playing his best, he looks like a man among boys.
At 6’3”, 225 lbs, he is built more like a strong safety than a middie. His size, strength, and speed make him near impossible to defend. Often, it seems Rabil can get to the cage at will, slicing through defenses as they try double teams, early slides, and malicious pressure, all to no avail.
“I would say he’s a thrasher,” said Stephen Peyser, Rabil’s line mate and fellow senior captain. “No matter where he is on the field…he can get to the goal.”
For four years Rabil has done just that, getting to the net and racking up 105 career goals, and leading his team in scoring for the past three seasons.
“I think the strength of his game is his ability to shoot on the run,” Peyser said. “He has a real knack for getting great separation from the defenseman, he’ll be able to zing the ball at the net just about as fast as he can from a standing spot, left-handed or right-handed…In order to neutralize him, you have to slide to him at 18-yards…and he just kind of turns around and dishes the ball off. He’s the playmaker.”
Rabil’s moves make him just as dangerous as his size. He has an arsenal of dodges to breakdown defenders, attacking with bullish power or ankle-breaking fluidity. He can rip an 18-yard cannon on the run just as easily as he can thread a pass inside to a cutting attackman. Being a natural athlete, he is just as comfortable playing D.
“Paul has all of the great attributes of what a great lacrosse player is,” said Matt Drennan, the longstick middie who has the task of playing Rabil almost every practice. “He’s smart on the field. He’s got a great lacrosse IQ. He’s more athletic than almost anyone I’ve ever played with, and he shoots the ball on the run like no one in the country…. Paul’s just one of those guys who’s the real deal, he’s the full package.”
While Rabil entered college with immense promise and unpolished skill, he was honed into that “full package” through the influence of the talented senior midfield group of Greg Peyser, Kyle Harrison, and Matt Rewkowski.
Peyser’s muscle game can be seen when Rabil puts his head down and just bowls over defenders. His slick stick work mirrors the finesse of Rewkowski. Rabil’s raw athleticism and almost graceful dodging and shooting harkens Harrison. But the most useful skill he gathered from these men is how they carried themselves.
“Playing alongside Kyle, the one thing he taught me was to go out on the field with as much confidence as you can and to never lose sight of that, no matter how you’re playing,” Rabil said. “Matt Rewkowski was probably the most poised player I’ve ever played with…so I just try to carry on those traits.” When Rewkowski went down early in the 2005 season with a torn ACL, Rabil was able to join that talented first line. With the Blue Jays trailing Syracuse 7-1 in the Carrier Dome, Hopkins Coach Dave Pietramala looked to mix up his midfield to elicit a spark.
“Paul got bumped up in the Syracuse game,” Stephen Peyser said, “and that was kind of his awakening, his kind of emergence into the college lacrosse scene.” Rabil answered the call, scoring three-straight goals, en route to four on the day and the eventual 12-11 Hopkins win.
“I think big players perform in big games,” Pietramala said. “Obviously the Hopkins-Syracuse rivalry is a fierce [game, a] great traditional one.” Over the next four years, Rabil built a reputation as a big time player. After the Syracuse game, Rabil never relinquished his spot on the starting line. He finished the 2005 season as the team’s second leading scorer, and a national champion. The following year, he immediately became “the guy” on the Hopkins roster.
“Paul is a big game player,” Drennan said. “He’s a guy that as a leader you can look to to get the job done when you really need it to get done…He’s one of those guys who just steps up, especially on the biggest stages, and plays his best lacrosse.” The 2007 season provided a perfect platform for Rabil to show just how clutch he became. With the team reeling at 4-4, he helped right the ship, scoring three key goals in a 10-9 win over Navy, and nailing the eventual game winner in a 9-8 victory over Hofstra. But his most memorable scores came in overtime victories against Princeton in week two, and Maryland, stopping a three-game skid.
“Paul is the guy you want with the ball at the end,” Peyser said. “In big game moments, he’s a big game player. I think he’s the only Hopkins player ever to score two overtime goals in one season. That’s incredible. To be able to garner that type of pressure as an athlete you’ve got to talk about the greats of not just lacrosse, but any sport.”
But beyond the dramatics of the regular season, Rabil truly shines on the sports biggest stage. His teams have gone 11-1 in the postseason, winning two national championships, and now playing in their third Final Four. He has set the new Hopkins postseason points record, tallying 42 on 21 goals, and 21 assists. He has changed his game, happy to score when he can, or defer to open teammates when defenses overzealously pursue him. He relishes the pressure of a ‘win or go home’ environment.
“It definitely takes on a different sort of edge come playoff time,” Rabil said. But that big stage and expectations of success were why Rabil came to Hopkins in the first place. During recruiting, Rabil was drawn to Hopkins because of the prestige of the program, Pietramala said.
“I think what we learned about Paul was, being the number one sport on campus, being that big time football player, or basketball player, which is what you get here at Hopkins, was really important,” Pietramala said That desire to be ‘the guy’ and play on the biggest stage, where winning isn’t just familiar, it’s expected, is the essence of Rabil’s success. He might be the best simply because he demands that of himself.
“You can be a great athlete and not be a great player,” Pietramala said. “Guys that don’t live up to their potential are a dime a dozen in athletics these days. Paul isn’t that guy. He wants to be great…Paul is obviously our most talented player, and by far our most competitive player and one of our hardest workers.”
“I’m never content where I’m at,” Rabil said. “I don’t see anything that can’t be fixed in my game.” That insatiable need to improve pushes Rabil to be a strong leader. Working his hardest at all times, Rabil demands the same drive from his teammates.
“I think that’s kind of Paul’s role as one of our captains; when a guy is not getting his job done, there needs to be someone who’s not the nice guy all of the time,” Peyser said. “Everyone has the utmost respect for him and loves him as a player and a friend, but knows they’re going to have to answer to him when the time comes.”
“Paul is kind of the hard guy of our leaders,” Pietramala said. “For young guys, it’s hard to meet Paul’s standards, because he sets such high standards for himself…The one thing Paul can do is say, ‘hey, this is what we have to do to be successful, this is what I’m doing, and you need to do it as well,’ and that’s a hard standard to meet.”
That quest for success runs through the entire Blue Jay squad. With defenses keying more on Rabil, he has become an effective feeder. His teammates have answered the call, burying feeds and converting offensive opportunities created by Rabil. Playing against Rabil every day in practice forces the Hopkins defenders to get better, as Drennan has learned quickly this season.
“I’ve got in the back of my mind that I’ve gotten to play against Paul everyday in practice,” Drennan said. “If I have a decent week of practice on Paul, that definitely gives me confidence going into Saturdays.”
“Because of Paul’s work ethic, because of his competitiveness, he forces people around him to be better, “ Pietramala said. “He makes people better.”
Now, with Memorial Day weekend ensuing, Rabil will continue to do what he has always done, strap it on and push his team toward the success he yearns for, the success he demands.
“To leave this school winning three championships in four years would just be an unbelievable feeling,” Rabil said. “That would go down with some of the great Hopkins classes. As much as we’ve struggled, that would be quite a feet for this senior class.”
Regardless of how this weekend’s games play out though, there is little doubt that Rabil will leave behind a truly impressive legacy, not only for Johns Hopkins but for the game.
“I think Paul will be remembered as one of the best middies that Hopkins had,” Drennan said. “He’ll just be remembered as a guy who did a lot for Hopkins. He was a key middy in 2005, helped Hopkins win a national championship when they hadn’t done so in 18 years, and was able to step-up and be a leader last year when he was a junior and has continued to be a consistently great player. There’s a lot of players that have a great season one year. Paul’s been consistently great every year that he’s played.”
FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
Something seems familiar about this Saturday’s Hopkins v Duke game. While it’s not for all the marbles like the previous two postseason meetings, parallels exist. Last year’s Hopkins team sat at 4-4 on April 7, after losing to Duke 11-9. They proceeded to reel off nine-straight wins en route to beating Duke again, 12-11, for the national championship. This year, the Jays sat at 3-5 on April 5, after getting embarrassed 17-6 by Duke. Hopkins then strung together seven-straight wins to put them back in the Final Four, facing Duke again.
Last year, Rabil was held to three points (1 g, 2 a) in a regular season defeat to the Devils, to come back and score six points (1 g, 5 a) the next time. After only scoring a goal in this year’s regular season defeat, expect Rabil to make his presence felt this time around.
Hopkins never loses to the same team twice in a season. While Duke is a juggernaut in 2008, it is May, and this is Johns Hopkins. No one is winning this game on laurels alone.
The Driving Force