STONY BROOK, N.Y. – On Nov. 29, an American University frontcourt still trying to find itself after the graduation of its pillar and toughest player, was dealt another big blow when starting center Kevin Panzer went down with an ankle injury against Columbia University in a game the Eagles would lose 52-43.
As the game entered the waning moments, with the Lions holding a comfortable lead, Eagles’ head coach Mike Brennan could be heard on the sideline.
“Score! Score!” shouted Brennan from the bench at Levien Gymnasium.
Brennan was shouting at center Zach Elcano, who up until then had been little more than a big body and end of the bench reserve, pressed into action in Panzer’s absence.
Fast-forward a month later, and the Eagles frontcourt has yet to fully recover since losing star Tony Wroblicky to graduation followed by Panzer’s injury. In that time, Elcano has faced a trial by fire, and showed some signs of growth, chief among them an 11 point, seven rebound, five assist, three block effort in a big overtime win at La Salle, and 13 points in a convincing win at Brown.
“I think I’ve just been gaining more confidence in the post,” said Elcano when asked about improvements he has made. “More confidence to make moves, score, and not be timid.”
But the learning curve of Elcano and the Eagles’ front court only got steeper on Tuesday night when faced with Stony Brook and the Seawolves’ wrecking ball center Jameel Warney, the nation’s leader in rebounds and double-doubles. The Eagles fell at the new Island Federal Credit Union Arena on Long Island, 59-47, and one of the deciding factors, once again, was their interior play.
Just a season after the inside game was something American was known for and struck fear in opponents, its absence was made even more prevalent Tuesday night. For the fifth game in a row, Panzer was out of the lineup, recovering from his ankle injury and it was once again all on Elcano.
Without Panzer in the lineup, Elcano’s playing time has multiplied. In his two first seasons, he played a total of 112 minutes in 26 games. Following Tuesday night, he had played in all 12 of American’s games, logging 219 minutes, all but 44 of those minutes coming in the last five games after Panzer’s injury.
“We’re trying to get Zach better each day,” said Brennan. “He’s played more than he’s ever played and we know it’s gonna be up and down.”
On Tuesday night, Elcano had his work cut out for him, going up against Warney.
“He’s going against one of the best guys in the country, so it was a big test for him,” said Brennan.
Elcano finished the day with four points, going 2-for-5 from the field, adding three rebounds, three blocks, two assists and two turnovers. The team’s struggles were on display in the final nine minutes of their game against Stony Brook, when the Seawolves out-rebounded the Eagles 12-4, to turn a 42-all tie into a 12 point win.
During that stretch, the Sewaolves pulled down four offensive rebounds, more than American had in the entire game. Stony Brook was able to outrebound American 36-20 on the night, and 15-3 on the offensive glass, leading to a 15-3 Stony Brook advantage in second chance points.
“We didn’t get it done against one of the best team’s in the country that does it well, so that’s something that showed us tonight, we’ve got to address it in practice,” said Brennan about his team’s ability to rebound.
With the inside game completely shut down, shooters like Charlie Jones, Jesse Reed, and John Schoof were forced to take heavily contested shots while being smothered by Stony Brook defenders. After a few Eagles misses and efficient Stony Brook possessions, the game was out of reach.
Certainly the Eagles growing pains in the post were magnified by going up against a player like Warney, but while there might not be a low-post player of his caliber in the Patriot League, with opposing bigs like Lafayette’s Dan Trist, Lehigh’s Tim Kempton, and Army’s Tanner Plomb and Kevin Ferguson, the Eagles are going to need to get more out of their post if they are going to be able to go back to The Big Dance.
The Eagles may finally be getting some reinforcements up front in Panzer’s return, as he may be back in time for the start of conference play on New Year’s Eve against Bucknell.