May 03, 2012

ITHACA, N.Y. (AP) Rob Pannell's senior season as the go-to guy for the Cornell men's lacrosse team wasn't supposed to be like this.

Visions of capturing the Tewaaraton Award as the best player in America were very real after a standout junior year - 42 goals and 47 assists in 17 games. That earned Pannell national attackman of the year accolades and a strong start this spring had the Big Red soaring.

Pannell had six goals and four assists in a 17-12 victory over Binghamton to open the season. Three days later, he had a goal, five assists and four ground balls in a convincing 18-7 win over Army.

On pace to challenge the Division I national scoring record (114 points in 1992 by Steve Marohl of UMBC), all hopes were dashed on that final assist against the Black Knights. Pannell suffered a broken left foot while setting up a teammate for a late goal with a jump pass across the field.

Just like that, the Big Red's most imposing player and captain was on the bench for the rest of the regular season, relegated to cheerleader status.

It hardly mattered as Cornell won seven of its next eight games to soar to No. 3 in the national rankings, the lone blemish a 9-8 overtime loss to then-No. 1 Virginia.

"I'm pretty proud with the way everyone responded. I think it says a lot about our program," said senior midfielder Roy Lang, who's in the running for the Tewaaraton. He has 15 goals and four assists to go with 22 ground balls and has played a crucial role on defense. "Has it been a challenge? Absolutely. Roles change, things happen."

Coach Ben DeLuca has taken it all in stride as Cornell (9-3) gets set to face Yale (9-4) in the Ivy League playoffs on Friday.

"We expect to be successful, and we understand that our program is greater than any one individual," said DeLuca, who was a captain for the Big Red in the late 1990s. "Rob is a tremendous player. Clearly, we think he's the best player in the country, and it hurt us when he went out. But I think our guys rallied to the cause. Everyone kind of stepped up, took a little bit extra of the load."

DeLuca said the secret to the Big Red surge was outright hustle and total unselfishness, qualities displayed in spades by former Cornell captain George Boiardi.

A history major, Boiardi was planning to teach poor American Indians on a reservation in South Dakota after graduation. Those dreams ended in tragedy when Boiardi stepped in front of a shot during a home game against Binghamton in March 2004 and was struck in the chest with the ball.

The 22-year-old senior defenseman collapsed and medical personnel were unable to revive him. Doctors believed the ball hit him at a precise moment in the heart's rhythm, a rare occurrence that causes cardiac arrest.

There was a tinge of macabre irony to that moment that still haunts. The game had been moved back a day by fog because it was too dangerous to play.

"What happens if we played at the time scheduled," asked DeLuca, who was Boiardi's defensive coach and regularly dons his No. 21 before and after games. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about George, his family, and the impact that he's had on our program, the lessons that we learned from his time with us.

"The impact is profound."

The hustle plays between the lines are referred to as "Boiardi stats" in game recaps, and the Big Red have had plenty of them this season.

"Those are the types of plays that may not show up on the stat sheet but are instrumental in demonstrating superior effort and hustle," said DeLuca, whose office desk has a photo of Boiardi in one corner. "Those are the types of things that we try and highlight."

Boiardi's presence remains amazingly strong all these years later, a testament to the team's dedication to preserve his memory. Teammates made a 21-minute video honoring Boiardi three years after he died, and each year incoming freshman players watch it.

"Everyone talks about it," Lang said. "You learn to understand what he was all about and kind of the attitude of teamwork and hard work and leading by example. Slowly, you start to embody the kind of person you want to be. It has more effect for me now as a senior than it did as a freshman because it was all kind of overwhelming then."

"He's here with us in spirit," Pannell said, "so we can get the most out of him every day."

The Big Red have lost two straight entering the postseason and need a big dose of the magic of No. 21 if they hope to make the NCAA tournament for the 23rd time. Although Cornell defeated perennial powerhouse Syracuse 12-6 in April, that's not the signature victory it normally would be. The Orange (7-7) suffered through a rare down year and had to win the Big East tournament to qualify, and Cornell has to do the same in the Ivy.

Boiardi's mom, Deborah, who addressed the team the day after her son died and still regularly speaks with DeLuca, will be rooting hard on Friday, likely with 5-month-old grandson George in her lap.

"I like our chances," said freshman Matt Donovan, who was named Ivy League rookie of the year on Wednesday and leads the Big Red with 32 points, including a team-high 14 assists . "I think we have a very good team. It's just a matter of staying disciplined, playing within the system."

And performing exactly like No. 21.

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