For Needham High boys’ lacrosse coach Dave Wainwright , assistant Paul Stenberg , even Needham girls’ coach Beth O’Brien , who was instructing her squad on an adjacent field, or anyone else who took a peek at the Rockets’ first official outdoor practice on Monday afternoon, it was clear.
Yes, they’re still good. Very good, perhaps.
“Not bad for the first time outside,” said Wainwright, huddled under his hood as the wind ripped through DeFazio Park.
Despite graduating last season’s entire defense, including the always entertaining, often inefficient, yet still incredibly gifted Lucas Davis in the cage, Needham looked more like the team that rallied against Duxbury in the second half of last year’s Division 1 state final than the first-half group that looked like it was on the wrong field. Down 10-2 at one point, the Rockets scored six straight before the final buzzer. Nico Panepinto scored four goals; he could’ve had more.
The tape of the game has yet to be watched, but some players have checked it out, if only to see the highlights, and how close they were to a Duxbury group (12 Division 1 recruits) that could be considered the state’s best high school team ever.
“It’s tough to watch,” said senior Robbie Pisano , a talented attackman who enjoyed a breakout season last year and has committed to Marquette. “To see all those mistakes, being so close.’’
Needham was right there. And Nico’s equally athletic younger brother, Mikey Panepinto , was hardly at full strength.
Mikey, a sophomore last year, broke his collar bone in the preseason and was expected to be out for the year. Healing and some natural toughness brought him back for the playoffs, though he wasn’t at his best.
During Monday’s practice, the same could not be said.
Mikey dodged teammates, at one point taking a stick to his neck that ripped his helmet backward but never lost the ball.
Nico lurched behind the cage like a vulture stalking prey. Often after he scores, coaches will try to explain to the players what just happened and how they should prevent it. But at times it’s unpreventable, a show of agility and power from a player who scored 54 goals on his way to earning All-America honors last spring.
“He’s just on a different level than most of the kids in the state,” said Mikey. “You can’t cover him, really. I think people will be really surprised with him this year.”
Mikey and Nico — about two years apart in age, one year in school, and inches in athletic ability — are often confused as twins, but in some ways they couldn’t be more different.
While Mikey will be more vocal, issuing orders or making sure the team knows about a calf cramp, Nico is often silent. He makes the Rockets’ best defensemen look silly, sends an underhand shot along the ground and through the legs of goalie Jack Curan, and then jogs back to his position like nothing happened.
But consider the relationship: Nico has been a standout athlete for years, with little brother right behind.
Which is why, to almost everyone but Nico, Mikey’s breakout season in football last fall, when he scored 25 touchdowns as a running back, was no surprise. And Nico is predicting more of that this spring. “My heart broke for him last year,” Nico said of Mikey. “He got to play one preseason game and he was looking so good. He was tearing it up. But when he came back, he loosened us a ton. Imagine if we had that the whole time.”
When Nico started getting recruited by colleges, Mikey tagged along. Nico was the prize, but once coaches glimpsed Mikey’s tapes, the reaction was usually something like the one after Nico committed to Fairfield. “The coach e-mailed me the next day and was like, ‘Dude, if your brother wants to come, we’ll take him,’ ” Nico said.
Mikey appreciates the car rides, the companionship, the support, but he’s ready for his own thing. Nico is too.
So University of Massachusetts Amherst, which would have taken both, got Mikey’s commitment.
“We want to do our own thing because we’ve been playing together all our lives,” Nico said. “It’s really cool that we got to do that, but at the same time, you want your own thing to do.”
For one last season, they each want the same thing: A state title.
Five stories to follow
► A Concord-Carlisle dynasty? The defending Div. 2 champs hope football stars Will Blumenberg and Tim Badgley recover quickly as they look for senior leadership. Coach Tom Dalicandro believes it’s a work in progress.
► New coaches, new results? Weston’s Jim Wilcon , who led the Wildcats to their first state title in 2011, stepped down and was replaced by Tom Atkins . At Watertown, the third-year program will be led by former Syracuse captain Mike Smith , who took over from Chris Burns .
► Can Wellesley stay strong? They lost two of the state’s best, goalie Connor Darcey (Penn State) and long-stick midfielder Ryan Cassidy (Amherst).
► Can Lincoln-Sudbury Regional make the jump? Among the final four teams in Division 1 three of the last four years, the Warriors return talented seniors Dan Delaney , Henry Guild, and Chris Giorgio .
► Acton-Boxborough Regional, one and done? Most of the scoring from last season’s squad, led by Tyler McKelvie and Kyle Soroka , graduated.