"The doctors have me pushing the envelope," said… (Cornell Athletics )
Cornell's Rob Pannell was the 2011 National Player of the Year, scoring more than five points per game. This season was supposed to be his coronation as he led Cornell to its first NCAA title since 1977. But a broken foot suffered March 3 has put the attackman's season on hold and his future in question.
"You ask yourself, 'Why me?' You put in hard work for three years — it was supposed to be my time to share with teammates and classmates," he told me Tuesday.
Coming into this season, Pannell and Virginia attackman Steele Stanwick (Loyola) were universally regarded as the game's best offensive players. Pannell was a strong and sturdy ball carrier with muscular legs and calves. He was known for his change of direction and powerful cuts, showcasing the ability to bounce around and through defenders on his way to the goal. With his eyes always up, he sniffed out double teams, often stepping away to feed a teammate. He was a matchup nightmare. He made every member of Cornell's offense dangerous while racking up huge point totals.
In the first two games of 2012 he accumulated 16 points, a pace that would have shattered NCAA records. But Pannell suffered a broken foot against Army in the second game. The normal recovery time, just to walk, is eight weeks. This injury impacts his dodges and cuts — a player puts four to five times his body weight on the plant foot. It'll be eight weeks since the injury Saturday night when Cornell visits Ivy league rival Princeton. And when Pannell will return to the field is a mystery.
"I practiced for a day," he told me on an ESPNU lacrosse podcast. "But I stopped after that — it didn't feel right. It's been tough. As a player on game day, you have control. I'm trying to stay positive, get healthy mentally and physically."
The Big Red is 9-2 with a one-goal loss to Virginia and an ugly setback last week against Brown. Suddenly it's on the NCAA tournament bubble, in need of wins or the Ivy League automatic qualifier to play in the postseason. And there's only one regular-season game left.
For now the team's lone captain is trying his best to lead from the sideline. He is smart, mature, athletically gifted and known for his relentless appetite for work. He tries to remain positive, making his teammates better every day through his experience, but you can hear the frustration in his voice.
What are his immediate plans, and what is his long-term future?
This is where the situation gets interesting. The Ivy League's policy for redshirting is different from the guidelines in the rest of Division I.
He can graduate and use his final year of eligibility at another school as a graduate student, much as Jack McBride graduated from Princeton and now plays for North Carolina. Fans are speculating that he might reunite with former Cornell coach Jeff Tambroni, who now coaches at Penn State. Or maybe he will head to Virginia and play alongside his younger brother Jimmy, who will be a freshman next fall. Some say he will return to Long Island and play for Hofstra, where his uncle Jim Metzger starred. If he does ultimately leave Cornell, whichever team lands him would be hitting the lottery.
He is a second-semester senior, weeks away from graduation. His loyalty is very much with Cornell. A potential option exists where he can academically withdraw from this semester, forfeiting tons of hard work and apply to the league to play next year for the Big Red. Or he could graduate, take a job in New York and play for the Long Island Lizards of Major League Lacrosse, who made him their No. 1 overall pick in January. He is leaning on the advice of his family and Cornell coach Ben DeLuca.
Right now his hopes are to rehab aggressively, return to the field this year and lead the Big Red to championship weekend. But remember, if he steps onto the field again this spring, his eligibility would be exhausted.
"Right now, I'm just continuing to rehab, doing my best to get back," he said. "The doctors have me pushing the envelope. I'm on the elliptical, speed-walking and doing pool workouts. I will return when I feel 100 percent. For now, if I can't play I will be focused on my coaching role, be a great captain, push the guys to win this game. We understand the urgency that's needed in practice to beat Princeton on Saturday."
Listening to him, you sense that he desperately wants to be on the field with his friends and teammates. He is rehabbing like a pro athlete, doing everything humanly possible to get on the field this spring. A healthy Pannell back in Cornell's lineup would dramatically alter the landscape of Division I lacrosse, as Cornell would immediately be a top contender for the gold trophy. Without him, all bets are off.
Quint Kessenich covers college sports for the ESPN networks and writes a weekly column for The Baltimore Sun during lacrosse season.