Jan. 27, 2014

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Hard as it may seem to believe today, Rob Pannell once was known to some in his Long Island, N.Y., hometown as “James’ brother.”

Heading into the 2008 lacrosse season, James Pannell was a hotshot eighth-grader on the varsity at Smithtown High School West, and Rob, five years older, was a postgraduate student at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts.

As a Smithtown West senior, Rob had put up big numbers but received little interest from traditional lacrosse powers. At Deerfield, however, his play finally attracted the attention of big-time Division I programs, and his star continued to rise after he enrolled at Cornell.

He was the Ivy League rookie of the year in 2009. By the time he concluded his college career, as a fifth-year senior, the elder Pannell ranked among the greatest lacrosse players in NCAA history.

“People would come up to me and say, `Oh, you’re Rob’s brother,’ ” James recalled with a smile last week. “It was funny how that happened.”

In 2013, Rob Pannell, a 5-10, 195-pound attackman, totaled 47 goals and 55 assists for the Big Red and won the Tewaaraton Award, given annually to the top player in college lacrosse.

At the University of Virginia, James’ first college season did not go as well. During the Cavaliers’ first full practice last January — the same one at which All-America midfielder Chris LaPierre injured the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee — Pannell severely sprained his right ankle.

Pannell, who was a three-time All-Long Island selection in high school, managed to play in every game for the Wahoos last season. But the injury cost him significant practice time, and he never regained the explosiveness that made him such a heralded recruit.

In 15 games, six of which he started, Pannell totaled 12 points, on seven goals and five assists.

Athletic trainer Rebecca Vozzo “did a great job getting me back on the field as quick as possible,” Pannell said. “It just felt like I wasn’t 100 percent when I was back on the field.”

Even late in the season, “I still always felt a little something, thinking about my ankle,” Pannell said. “I’ve always been a guy that relied on my cutting and stopping really quickly. I just felt like it wasn’t secure enough to do that as well as I had in the past.”

Heading into the 2013 season, veteran coach Dom Starsia had told anybody who asked that for UVa to contend for championships, Pannell needed to play like an ACC-rookie-of-the-year candidate.

“When he got hurt, that really hurt us,” Starsia said recently. UVa finished 7-8 and failed to advance to the NCAA tournament for only the second time in Starsia’s 20 seasons as their head coach.

The `Hoos have reason to believe they will return to their customary place in the lacrosse world this season. LaPierre is healthy again, and so is Pannell. Virginia opens Feb. 6 at home against Loyola (Md.), and the 5-10, 175-pound Pannell is expected to start on the attack.

“He was one of the linchpin guys for us last year, and he is again this year,” Starsia said. “His progress is going to have a lot to say about what kind of team we’re going to have.”

Pannell’s ankle held up in summer-league games on Long Island and, more important, after he returned to UVa in August.

“I came in, we got into it pretty quickly, and it just felt really good in the fall,” he said. “San Francisco was the first real test. That was really good, and we played really well, and I felt like I was 100 percent.”

In the San Francisco Fall Lacrosse Classic, UVa scrimmaged Princeton at historic Kezar Stadium on Oct. 12. Pannell scored a team-high three goals in the Cavaliers’ 11-8 victory.

“He got steadily stronger throughout the fall,” Starsia said. “By the end, when we went out to San Francisco, he was starting to show consistently what we need from him. And he’s gotten off to a good start here [in practice].”

In 2013, attackman Mark Cockerton scored 49 goals for UVa and was named a third-team All-American. Cockerton is back for his senior season, and a healthy Pannell “gives us that other threat on the attack,” Starsia said. “With him out there as a force, it’ll make us very difficult to cover.”

For Pannell, Virginia’s struggles last season were shocking. The Cavaliers have won four NCAA titles under Starsia — in 1999, 2003, 2006 and 2011 — and “I was expecting us to do big things in the playoffs,” Pannell said. “But we lost a lot of those one-goal games, and it just started breaking our confidence.”

One of those one-goal losses was to Cornell, March 9 at Klöckner Stadium. James was the first Pannell to score that day, pulling UVa to 4-4 with a goal at the 2:41 mark of the second quarter. Seventy-nine seconds later, Rob got his first goal, and he tormented the `Hoos the rest of the way.

The elder Pannell finished with two goals and four assists, the last on Steve Mock’s game-winning goal with 13 seconds left. Cornell 12, Virginia 11.

“To me, he’s the best,” James said of Rob. “He’s my role model. Everything that guy gets he deserves. He’s the hardest-working guy I know.”

Rob has told his kid brother — as have their parents — that James can have a similar impact on the game.

“I’ve always had more athletic ability [than Rob], they said,” said James, who also played football and basketball in high school. “He was just a very good lacrosse player that turned into a very good athlete once he started working out a lot. But they always said I had more God-given athletic ability. I was faster, I was stronger when I was younger.”

Asked to compare the brothers’ playing styles, Starsia said, “Rob was just really, really good in every part of the game. He’s probably more of an assist guy than James is. James is really strong. He’s not a big guy when you’re looking at him, but he’s got a really strong trunk and legs, and he’s a really powerful dodger. He’s tough to handle once he gets some momentum going toward the cage.”

UVa fans caught only glimpses of the younger Pannell’s skills in 2013. He scored more than one goal in only one game. His two goals helped Virginia crush Stony Brook 13-7 on Long Island.

“The problem is that if you can’t practice, you can show glimmers of what you’re capable of, but your passing, some of the basic stuff, the fundamental execution, it’s harder to be there,” said Starsia, who was an assistant coach at Brown, his alma mater, when Pannell’s father, Robert, was an undergraduate there.

Also, Starsia said, James is “somebody that needs to kind of play his way into shape. He’s not going to go out and run 10 miles on the road. He’s a fast-twitch muscle guy, and he needs to play. He needs to practice. This fall and into this preseason, we’ve seen his effectiveness. He’s much cleaner in his game and his game skills, just because he’s been able to work consistently. He’s in much better shape than he was a year ago.”

The third starter on the attack, along with Pannell and Cockerton, is likely to be redshirt junior Owen Van Arsdale or freshman Ryan Lukacovic, Starsia said. Also competing for playing time are freshmen AJ Fish and Joe French.

“All of them are pretty good,” Starsia said. “We’re really pleased with the Fish kid. He probably doesn’t figure in the first unit right now, but I would tell you that in a year’s time, if he doesn’t break into the attack unit, he’ll probably be a middie here. He’s going to have to play. He’s got good size, he’s athletic, he snaps it off pretty good.”

Fish, who’s listed at 6-3, 175 pounds, is from Illinois. The 5-11, 195-pound French, like Cockerton, is from Ontario, Canada.

“His game is a little limited, but he’s fearless in front of the goal,” Starsia said of French. “He’s the kind of kid that can get three goals without appearing to have done anything in the game, so you have a little confidence about putting him out there. And so we can go a couple different ways on the attack.”

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