For Cornell senior attack Rob Pannell, coming so close to the ultimate prize has been the ultimate tease.
As a freshman, Pannell -- a former star at Smithtown West, where his brother James is a Virginia-bound senior this year -- was on the opposite end of the field at Gillette Stadium when the Big Red lost the lead in the final seconds and suffered a crushing overtime loss to Syracuse in the 2009 NCAA men's lacrosse championship game.
As a junior, he was the front-runner most of the season for the sport's Heisman equivalent, the Tewaaraton Award, only to lose out to Virginia's Steele Stanwick when the Cavaliers staged an unexpected championship run.
Could this, finally, be Pannell's year, individually and collectively?
"I think this is as much talent and depth as we've ever had," said Pannell, whose Cornell club is ranked No. 3 in the respected Inside Lacrosse preseason poll behind the last two national champions, Virginia and Duke. "We have a lot of veterans at each position and I have no doubt we can challenge for the title."
If that happens, there's no doubt it will be Pannell leading the way. The dynamic playmaker, who has improved his goal-scoring each year, was voted the team's solo captain -- a rarity at Cornell -- and again is considered a favorite, along with Stanwick, for the Tewaaraton.
There's also no doubt which one Pannell considers the real ultimate prize. "It's not even a question. Hands down, the national championship trumps everything," he said. "I'm the solo captain. That's an honor and it carries a lot of responsibility to bring the team together."
Geographically, it's like bringing the neighbors together for a little lacrosse action. Cornell's attack could be dubbed the Long Island Connection. Pannell, who had 42 goals and 47 assists last season to lead the nation in points per game (5.24), is joined by Steven Mock (Huntington), a sniper who scored 40 goals. Former Manhasset sharpshooter Connor English, who transferred from Virginia, is immediately eligible and has a chance to start.
For Pannell, though, it's all about finishing. He is 60 points away from the top spot on Cornell's career scoring list with 236 points (96 goals, 140 assists), an easily attainable milestone, given that he's never scored fewer than 67 in a season. He is a mere 24 from the top spot in assists. But those aren't the finishing touches Pannell wants to apply.
The 5-10, 180-pounder, who was the first overall pick in the 2012 Major League Lacrosse draft by the Long Island Lizards, knows that his best chance to win the Tewaaraton is to still be playing on Memorial Day weekend in Foxboro, where the Final Four returns this year.
"I still really can't believe what happened to this day," he said of the loss to Syracuse in which a stunning turnover led to the Orange tying it with 4.5 seconds left. "You've got the highest high, with the ball and the lead, thinking you'll win the national championship, and the lowest low when they tied it and won in overtime. It was definitely a roller-coaster ride."
Pannell is ready to jump aboard once more.
"Steele was the main person making it happen for Virginia, and the [Tewaaraton] award usually goes to the best player on the championship team," he said. "I believe I've proven myself on an individual basis for the last three years; all I have to do now is concentrate on the team's success."
Those ultimate prizes are waiting.