ITHACA, N.Y. (AP) — When he was a budding freshman lacrosse star at Cornell, attackman Rob Pannell watched his lifelong dream vanish in a flash in the national championship game.
The Big Red squandered a late three-goal lead against perennial power Syracuse and lost the 2009 Division I men's title to the Orange in overtime.
In retrospect, Pannell says that may have been a blessing in disguise as he leads Cornell (12-3) into the NCAA playoffs against Maryland (10-3) on Sunday.
"One second you're sizing your finger for the ring you're about to get, then you have the lowest of lows," Pannell said. "You learn from that game. Quite frankly, if we had won that game I don't think that I would be the same player that I am today — driven, motivated. That was my dream. Losing that game has been a motivating factor behind my success."
It's difficult to imagine anybody with more motivation.
Not only has Pannell experienced the despair of losing a title game, he's also had to deal with the first real injury of his career. Off to an impressive start in 2012 — seven goals and nine assists in seven quarters of play — Pannell broke a bone in his left foot against Army in the second game of the season. He tried to come back, wasn't able to, then watched Cornell fail to make the postseason for the first time in a decade.
"Having never been hurt before, it was a struggle, not only physically but emotionally," Pannell said. "You work so hard to get to the level I was playing at — and I was at the highest level I was ever playing at. You build up to that senior year where it's your team, your guys' time as a class to take the team where it's going to go. To have that all taken away at once was very tough. I started crying."
Granted a medical waiver to return for a final season, the 5-foot-10, 195-pound Pannell has resumed being the force he was before the injury. He's tied for second in the nation in scoring with 36 goals and 44 assists, and for the second time in his career he's among five finalists for the Tewaaraton Trophy, awarded annually to the top player in college lacrosse.
"It's the competitive drive," Cornell coach Ben DeLuca said. "Rob is somewhat of a perfectionist. He wants to win at everything he does. He's never really satisfied with what he's done."
The journey has been quite remarkable.
A baseball player as a kid — his dad played baseball and football in college at Brown — Pannell became enamored with lacrosse before he turned 10 when his good friend Tim Trenkle handed him a stick.
"I played baseball for a little while longer, but the more I played lacrosse, it was what I wanted to play," said Pannell, a native of Smithtown, N.Y., on Long Island. "As much as it hurt my dad, I put my baseball mitt down. I realized lacrosse was a lot faster pace than baseball, especially the position I was playing. I always had the ball on my stick. I didn't have to wait for the ball to come to me."
Pannell failed to make varsity as a freshman at Smithtown because at barely over 5 feet he was too small and was a late bloomer three years later. If anything, he's the perfect example of how early recruiting by college coaches can sometimes really backfire.
"I matured late physically," said Pannell, who was 17 when he graduated from high school. "In my junior year in high school I had 70 points, which was a pretty good season, and then my senior year I had 130. I turned into a completely different player, but with recruiting these days, by the time you're a senior everyone knows where they're going already."
Pannell thought he knew where he was going, too — Quinnipiac had offered him a partial scholarship. He committed, changed his mind, then was stymied when Quinnipiac wouldn't release him.
"He was a home run for them," Pannell's dad, Robert, said. "We tried everything, but they were not going to release him."
So the family turned to prep school, and by chance Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts had one bed available — for a point guard in basketball. Pannell, who had been the starting point guard at Smithtown, was given that final slot and played nearly every minute of every basketball game. He also set the school record for points in a season with 99 for the lacrosse team.
Two of Pannell's Deerfield classmates signed with Cornell, and former Big Red head coach Jeff Tambroni had room for one more player. They suggested Pannell, he sent a highlight tape, and a week after watching it Tambroni signed Pannell without ever seeing him play in person.
That tape sure didn't lie.
A team captain for a third straight year, Pannell has 139 career goals and 193 assists for 332 points, third all-time in Division I, behind only Matt Danowski of Duke (353) and Air Force's Joe Vasta (343). Pannell also is the first player in Ivy League history to be named player of the year three times and just the third player to be a four-time, first-team, All-Ivy selection.
"''I enjoy watching him play. I even watch some of the replays," said John Desko, head coach of top-seeded Syracuse. "He does some amazing things on the field and just makes the other players better around him. We noticed how hard the other guys on the team work to get open."
If Pannell has one lament this season, it's that Cornell's three losses all have been by one goal — to Bucknell during a March snowstorm, at Syracuse after teammate Connor English hit a goalpost with 10 seconds left, and last week against Princeton in the Ivy League tournament.
At least there's one more chance to make everything right.
"Right now, winning is what's most important to me," Pannell said. "It's why I came back. A national championship is all I want."