NEEDHAM, Mass. – When Needham lacrosse is operating in the offensive half, you can hear attack Nico Panepinto and his midfielder brother Mike. They go back-and-forth volleying messages about positioning while on the field. They’re equally as vocal during timeouts, going over previous plays and the ways things could have gone better, both on their own and with Needham’s coaching staff.
During an early season league game against Framingham on Thursday, the Panepintos were frustrated through the first half and the Rockets trailed in the third quarter. After a couple of lackluster looks at the cage to start the second half, they finally synced. They began a string of absolute rips on the net, turning a once tight game into a non-competitive one by the fourth quarter.
Offense can be a struggle for all teams this early juncture of the year and the Panepintos are no exception. They understand they’ll improve – and they know they’ll have to improve as the Rockets eye a repeat final appearance at Harvard Stadium come June. But they also know they have one major advantage over their competition; that is the ability to be each other’s harshest critic.
“I think the best thing is that we can say anything to each other and not take it personally,” said Nico, who signed his National Letter of Intent to play at Division 1 Fairfield University in November. “It might sound bad, but if I was open and Mikey took a bad shot, I would tell him, ‘What are you doing.’”
And – perhaps more importantly – the business of lacrosse remains just that.
“Even if we say something not so nice to each other, we get over it pretty fast because we live together,” added Mike, who has a verbal commitment to UMass-Amherst in place.
For the last couple of years, the name Panepinto is synonymous with Needham athletics. Whether working on offense with the Rockets football team or the lacrosse team, they’ve been targeted players by the opposition.
Nico has been among the top offensive weapons in the state on the lacrosse field for the last couple of years. He nearly single-handedly led the Rockets in a second-half comeback bid against Duxbury in last year’s Division 1 state title game. While Needham fell short, 10-8, Nico’s four-goal performance made the Dragons sweat out their ninth championship in a decade and turned a game that was supposed to be a laugher into a spell-binding nail-biter. He finished 2012 with 54 goals and 30 assists while being selected to ESPN Boston’s All-State Team.
Mike, aside from his lacrosse talent, carved out a name for himself during football season last fall. As Rockets head coach Dave Duffy searched for a starting running back during summer scrimmages, Mike moved to the forefront. He won the job and ran with it for more than 2,000 yards and 26 touchdowns – good for best among Division 1 teams in Eastern Mass.
Both brothers claim lacrosse is their favorite sport to play, but both echoed the sentiment of the importance of playing different sports.
“It’s just fun,” Mike said. “Why not play football? Why not do something different in the offseason? Plus, college coaches love that. They’re interested in what else you’re doing. I think everybody should play as many sports as they can.”
He tailed off for a moment and then added, “I would play basketball, too, but I’m just so bad at it.”
If basketball is the Pinepintos’ athletic kryptonite, there’s still a lot left over. They take after their father, who went to Hamilton College to play football and ended up adding lacrosse to his repertoire while there. Their mother, Cristina, danced ballet. They always encouraged the boys’ athletic development, but of late lacrosse has come to the forefront – if mostly because it’s portable and less destructive.
“Lacrosse, you can do it anywhere, anytime,” Nico said. “Football is something that’s real organized. You can’t really play a game of pickup football.”
To which Mike chimed in, “Well, we did play football. Until everybody started getting hurt.”
Of course, lacrosse is a shared experience for the brothers. They played together on youth teams and on out-of-season travel teams. That’s developed into a shared brain of lacrosse acumen; two bodies pulling in the same direction, both knowing how the other will react.
Aside from the natural chemistry shared by siblings, they’re also finding out how they fit in the dynamic of this year’s Needham squad. The Rockets are talented with a mixture of Division 1 talent in attack Robbie Pisano (Marquette) and long-stick midfielder Mike Elcock (UMass). But they’re also inexperienced in other areas. So the early season has turned into a bit of a trial by fire, which fits perfectly into head coach Dave Wainwright’s mentality.
“You see it every day in practice and our games, we have four, five different kids playing at attack right now,” Mike said. “Coach says it every time, that every practice, every game is a tryout.”
Still, the Rockets enter the season ranked third in ESPN Boston’s MIAA Top 25 poll. They are among the favorites in Division 1. That might fly in the face of everything Wainwright preaches, but a state championship isn’t outside of the realm of attainable goals. The mindset will not change. All the Rockets have to remember is what they proved in defeat a year ago.
“I think it showed that we have a lot of heart and how far our program has come,” Nico said. “Going into that game, we were looking at the scores that everybody was predicting for the game. We came in as real underdogs, and that’s what we like, being under the radar.”
And for the all the praise that have been heaped upon the Panepinto Bros., they remain understated. Spending even a couple minutes in their combined presence and you’ll find a pair of siblings who legitimately seem to enjoy each other’s company. Nothing is forced. They have a knack – not for finishing each other’s sentences — but for picking up on each other’s thoughts and running with it.
When talking about how they each other’s harshest critic, they both engaged in a bout of putting themselves down – not for lack of confidence, but for out of respect for each other’s accomplishments.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re some kind of dynamic duo or anything,” Mike droned.
But combined, they might just be good enough to get Needham over the hump.