Source: USA TODAY
Some underdogs are more — well — under than others.
The Cornell men’s lacrosse team certainly hasn’t looked the part through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
The Big Red (14-3) are on a roll heading into the national semifinals, having dispatched their past two opponents by a combined 32-14, led by their best player who is likely to claim the sport’s top individual award while etching his name in the record books.
Nevertheless, Cornell coach Ben DeLuca insists his team will be the underdog going forward, starting with Saturday’s game at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field against seventh-seeded Duke (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
“I do think when you look at the rankings, we are squarely the underdog,” he says. “We’re OK with that role and that moniker. We embrace it. It may have looked easy to win our two tournament games the way that we have. But from our coaches’ standpoint, we see all the hard work our kids have put in, and they’ve executed on game day.”
In some respects, DeLuca is right about his team’s underdog status. Cornell is the lone unseeded team in the Final Four, and the Big Red were behind Duke (14-5) in both major polls heading into the tournament (Duke was fourth, Cornell eighth in the coaches’ poll). The Blue Devils, furthermore, are also making their seventh consecutive semifinals appearance, the longest active streak, and are the only returning semifinalist from a year ago.
“Last year’s so long ago. We never really talk in terms of past or history or what happened a year ago,” says Duke coach John Danowski. “You do hope the experience our guys have gained will be helpful.”
But getting to Philly wasn’t nearly as easy for Duke. It needed overtime to get by defending champ Loyola (Md.) in the first round 12-11 and a fourth-quarter rally to edge No. 2 seed Notre Dame by the same score in the quarterfinals. Cornell, by contrast, was dominant in all phases in dissections of No. 6 Maryland and No. 3 Ohio State by counts of 16-8 and 16-6, respectively.
“We are coming in with a great amount of confidence,” DeLuca acknowledges. “We’ve been in some tight games and a lot of different circumstances, and I think we’ve grown and matured a lot to get to this point.”
The driving force behind that maturing process has been Rob Pannell, a finalist and likely favorite to earn the program’s second Tewaaraton Award. The fifth-year senior had to withdraw from school and apply for a waiver from the Ivy League — it does not allow redshirts — when a foot injury derailed his and the Big Red’s 2012 campaign.
He enters this weekend with 347 career points, six shy of the NCAA Division I record set by former Duke player and current assistant coach Matt Danowski.
“Rob has had a tremendous season, every bit of what we expected when we found out he’d be returning,” DeLuca says. “It’s a credit to all the hard work he’s put in. Very few people see the preparation and the training he puts in, extra shooting, extra practice, in the film room. He’s very much a coach on the field for us. It’s been wonderful to watch.”
“I feel blessed to experience the Final Four for the third time now,” Pannell says. “I’m most happy for our underclassmen, those guys who work so hard who are here for the first time. I really want them to have the full experience of it. It’s the pinnacle of our sport, and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before.”
With 42 goals this season, Pannell can clearly still create his own shot. But his role as the facilitator and quarterback of the offense has been just as important. The principal beneficiary of Pannell’s 53 assists has been senior Steve Mock, Pannell’s good friend whose seven goals last week brought his season total to 59.
As for the record, Pannell says he wasn’t really aware of it until the questions began.
“I can’t help but think about it a little bit now when everybody’s bringing it up,” he says. “I expect I’ll forget about it once the game gets going. Everything else will follow if we play the way we’re capable of playing. I just want to win two more games down in Philly.”
The question has also come up for the Duke players, with the current recordholder on their coaching staff.
“We’re going to do our best to limit his points, but it’s not really our focus,” says junior defenseman Chris Hipps. “I think we just need to play our way, the Duke way, just being aggressive as a unit and helping each other out.”
John Danowski agrees: “You’ve got to be true to who you are. You can’t change your game plan too much for that next opponent, because you’re going to change what you do.”
Duke has the capability to match the Big Red’s firepower. The Blue Devils are producing 13.84 goals a game, third in the country and just behind Cornell’s 14.59. Jordan Wolf leads the way with 49 goals and 25 assists, but there are plenty of other options, including Josh Dionne (40 goals) and freshman Case Matheis (28 goals, 21 assists).
Eddie Timanus, who covers lacrosse for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @EddieTimanus.
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