The cliché goes that defense wins championships. But even the stingiest defense must be complemented by a productive offense.
That's where the attackmen come in, the guys in charge of generating scoring opportunities and delighting fans with their wizardry. Four of Division I's top attackmen will congregate at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday to participate in the fifth-annual Face-Off Classic.
At 5 feet, 10 inches and 180 pounds, Rob Pannell doesn't boast tremendous size for No. 13 Cornell, but the junior's speed and creativity have him widely regarded as a leading candidate to capture the Tewaaraton Award, which is awarded annually to collegiate lacrosse's top player.
With 24 points, Pannell leads the nation with a 6.0 points-per-game average and ignites a Big Red offense that averages 12.5 goals, which ranks eighth in the country.
ESPN analyst and former Johns Hopkins All-American goalie Quint Kessenich says Pannell "is as good as any attackman that I've seen in the past 10 years."
Pannell said he still has room for improvement, pointing to his low shooting percentage and his shot accuracy.
"I think each year, you've got to continuously evaluate what you're doing and your own game," said Pannell, who was named the National Attackman of the Year by the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association last June. "My whole life, I've been my biggest critic in terms of what I can be doing to get better — whether that means working out or working on my speed or working on my skills within my game. I've always been the first to criticize myself after a game, and I'm usually not satisfied with the player that I am despite any awards I might win. I've always believed that there is room for improvement."
Pannell could get some competition from Steele Stanwick, the junior who plays for No. 2 Virginia.
The Baltimore native and Loyola graduate is averaging 4.5 points. Stanwick, who quarterbacks a Cavaliers offense that ranks third in the country with a 15.1 goals-per-game average, ranks second in the nation in assists with 14. In first? Pannell with 15.
Kessenich said Stanwick differs from Pannell.
"He's not going to run through you," he said. "He's going to take what you give him."
Stanwick, who is on pace to reach career bests in assists (42) and points (78), wasn't made available for an interview this week, but said last week that he hasn't concerned himself with his personal performance nor his candidacy for the Tewaaraton.
"I think it's a little early to say that," he said prior to Virginia's 12-10 loss to top-ranked Syracuse a week ago. "Every season is different, and you can go on streaks where you score a lot, and you can definitely go on streaks where you're not scoring a lot. I wouldn't say that yet. But through these first four games, I've been pretty successful. That's a testament to my teammates, and the offensive and defensive guys have done a great job of getting the ball back. So it's too early to tell, but it's definitely something that I'm happy with."
The heir apparent
While Pannell and Stanwick jockey for the Tewaaraton, the hope within Syracuse's program is that sophomore Joseph Marasco will eventually storm onto the national stage, too.
Marasco, who is known by the nickname "JoJo," leads the Orange in assists (five) and points (11) and wears the fabled No. 22 jersey previously worn by greats such as Gary Gait, Casey Powell, Ryan Powell, Mike Powell and Dan Hardy.
Kessenich said Marasco is more explosive than both Pannell and Stanwick, adding that he has "great change of direction," and is "creative, unpredictable, but still learning how to fit his strengths into the framework of that offense — when to push things, when to slow down."
Marasco, who has no regrets about lobbying coach John Desko for the No. 22 jersey as a freshman, said he understands the expectations placed on him by outside sources. But he said he's making progress.
"I'm still developing," Marasco said. "Every day, I learn something new, and I'm just trying to become a better attackman by working harder in practice and learning more after each game and picking up on my mistakes and trying to correct them. I feel like I'm in a good spot now, but I'm never going to be satisfied with where I am."
The wise veteran
When Chris Boland graduated from Boys' Latin as that school's all-time leading scorer (298 points) and a three-time All American, the feeling was that the Jessup native would contend for the Tewaaraton.
While off-field issues and a serious knee injury derailed Boland's candidacy, he has returned this season and ranks second in assists (seven) and points (15) for the No. 14 Blue Jays.
Kessenich said Boland is deceptively creative around the cage.
"He doesn't have a huge repertoire of skills, but on that right corner, he's pretty nifty," he said.
Boland, who at the age of 23 is the oldest player on Johns Hopkins' roster, said his experience and wisdom are weapons that perhaps younger players may lack.
"That comes with experience and knowing the game and knowing what's around you in certain situations," he said. "… Experience helps me understand the game a little better and things just come a little more naturally to me. I don't have to think as much, whereas with younger guys, they're constantly thinking about that. I was the same way when I was a freshman because the game's different. It's faster, but I'd like to think that it was because as I was growing up, I was put into certain situations where I had great coaches and teammates."