'Megastar' Pannell deserves Tewaaraton Award

Cornell junior is simply the best player in the nation

April 21, 2011

The Tewaaraton Award is given to the top player in college lacrosse. The final 25 nominees were released this week. The expansion of lacrosse means that there are many good players, but fewer megastars.

Exceptional defensive coaching stands in the way of individual domination.

Remember when Gary Gait and the Powell brothers were unstoppable? Or when Yale midfielder Jon Reese scored 82 goals in 1990? This year, the national leader is Trevor Moore of Robert Morris with just 42 goals. There isn't a goalie you would begin to compare to Larry Quinn or Brian Dougherty. Defender Dave Pietramala carved up ball carriers like an Easter ham. Today's defenders are system-oriented. The game has changed and is more team-oriented.

Lacrosse has always been defined by the midfield position. Unfortunately, that isn't true anymore. Name some stellar midfielders — Stony Brook's Kevin Crowley; Virginia's Shamel Bratton; Notre Dame's Zach Brenneman; John Ranagan of Johns Hopkins. Who else?

Crowley is the headliner. He's a force of nature. "He's improved on attacking from anywhere on the field. Whether it's attacking from behind or the wing, he is a threat because he'll take you from anywhere and be very successful at it," Stony Brook coach Ricky Sowell said. "He's not your typical dodging midfielder."

Opposing coaches agree.

"Crowley is a man among boys," Denver coach Bill Tierney said. Crowley is tough to game plan against because he plays everywhere on the field, a radical concept indeed. He runs on the face-off wing, defensive midfield and offensive shifts, so his impact in a game is constant.

The midfield position has evolved because of specialization. Gone are the end-to-end rushes. There are fewer transitional opportunities for midfielders to shine. Most are designated offensive players, face-off players or defensive players who sprint on and off the field accordingly.

What about defenders? Is there a feared stud defender who can take your lunch money and make you look silly? No.

"Defensemen do not stand out because of packages and schemes," says WMAR analyst Mark Dixon. "Defenders don't chase and check but are responsible for a certain area of the field in a package. That's why we are so dazzled by long stick midfielders Joel White and Brian Karalunas, because they can cover the whole field and show off their versatility and athleticism."

There is one megastar in college lacrosse — Cornell attack man Rob Pannell. The junior has Hall-of-Fame level moves, vision, intellect and work ethic. Pannell will win the 2011 Tewaaraton Trophy barring a major collapse. He's universally regarded as the best player in the nation. Pannell has 30 goals and 31 assists, averaging 5.5 points per game against defenses who are single-minded in their approach to stop him.

"He is Cornell's motor," Syracuse coach John Desko said.

"I love Pannell," Denver coach Bill Tierney said. "I think the game needs more attackmen like him, but with the sliding, shutting off, zones, quick double-teams, great athletes playing defense, and better goalie play, it is hard to dominate."

Improvements in coaching, film study and five days of preparation can all lead to long Saturdays on offense. Defenses and a slower tempo are to blame for the perceived lack of star power. "Teams will double team off the bus. In the past a player had to beat his man to score, now he has to beat the entire team defense to score," Desko said. "And, the stars are getting fewer touches and fewer shots."

Coaches have never done a better job clamping down on opposing stars.

"Teams game-plan around players like Rob Pannell, Shamel Bratton, Billy Bitter, and Grant Catalino," Dixon said. "Their tendencies and moves are well known, studied on film and opposing coaches suffocate them, forcing their teammates to pick up the slack."

When teams double-team the ball, passing skills are essential. Other than Pannell, who is a world-class distributor? North Carolina's Nicky Galasso can dish the rock. Virginia's Steele Stanwick sees the whole field. Drexel's Scott Perri has vision. Army's Jeremy Boltus leads the country in assists.

I like Boltus alot. He's produced balanced numbers (23 goals, 35 assists) while averaging 4.8 points per game.

"Jeremy is an absolute dream to coach," Army coach Joe Alberici said. "He has an outstanding work ethic and a great understanding of the game."

In high school Boltus was a scorer, not a feeder, scoring 70 goals as a senior. "Jeremy's greatest physical attribute is his vision," Alberici said. "He was the football quarterback in high school and a guard on the hoops team." After his freshman year he dropped 15 pounds to make himself quicker and you could really start to see his development from a good player into an elite player."

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