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Stories/Op-Ed

Knighthawks’ Star Rookies Are Closer Than Ever Before

The night of last year’s NLL Draft, three best friends sat side-by-side waiting to hear their names called. Within moments of each other, Jake Withers, Austin Shanks, and Eric Fannell, the former teammates, competitors and roommates, would find out that the next journey in their lacrosse lives would continue to together.

“We all sat beside each other during the draft,” Fannell remembered of the experience when he, Withers and Shanks were selected by the Rochester Knighthawks. “Jake went second, then Austin went up and got his jersey, and I got called right after Austin. So, as soon as I walked back, we were all standing, we took a picture – we were extremely happy. It was a great feeling to come together, go through a lot together, and then be drafted within 10-15 minutes of each other, 2nd, 5th, and 6th; it was awesome.”

Just four months prior to the draft, the three newly anointed Knighthawks stood together as Buckeyes from The Ohio State University for the most important game of their respective collegiate careers: the 2017 NCAA National Championship game. While the trio would lose to the Maryland Terrapins 9-6 in their second and last season as a unit at OSU, the experience they shared strengthened their already close relationship.

“Anytime you go to a championship, you’re going to remember that team,” Shanks said. “Being the first team in The Ohio State University’s history to go to the championship game, even the final four, you’re going to remember those guys for the rest of your life. As the season goes on, you build stronger bonds and friendships. It’s pretty cool to do these things together and take it step-by-step.”

Aside from being teammates, Austin and Jake were roommates for a couple years, and all three spent plenty of time with each other, particularly during that championship run. “It helped [grow our relationship] a lot,” Fannell said of his time with time Withers and Shanks at OSU that May. “We were together for an extra four weeks because we just kept winning. After we’d win, we’d be out of school, so all we did was hang out with each other. That aspect of being together for so long without any school work, just lacrosse practice, it helped our camaraderie grow greatly.”

Even before their two seasons together at OSU, the three Ontario-natives were very familiar with each other. “I played with Fannell on U-16 team Ontario,” Shanks said. “[Withers] and I played bantam, midget, and U-16, U-19 together. And, since [Withers] is from Whitby and I’m from Peterborough, I played him at least two to three time a year in minor and junior. I definitely began to recognize their styles of play playing with them and against them for a few years and we became pretty good friends at that point.”

Before being drafted by the Knighthawks, the trio also had a few years of experience playing against each other in Major Series Lacrosse. During the NLL’s offseason, you can still find them battling it out in that summer league.

Now that they’re united in Rochester, Withers, Shanks, and Fannell are closer than ever. As they will all attest too, it’s hard to find many moments when all three of them aren’t together.

“We live in a three bedroom apartment now,” Withers said. “We all have our own room but it was quite the circus for who was going to get what room…On the road I’m usually roommates with [Shanks] and I’ll go to either him or Fannell if I’m feeling a certain way on game day or if I have a problem. They’re the first guys I see when I get up in the morning, then we go to the gym, and especially when we’re teaching our kids at the Knighthawks Academy or we’re getting out into the community. They’re some of the best, most solid guys I could ask for and I’m glad we can share this experience of breaking into the NLL.”

Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen says it’s clear to see how close the three are whenever he’s around them. “They’re constantly together and sometimes they might even finishes each other sentences,” Hasen said.

The chemistry that has been building over their decades-long friendship isn’t all for show. Their ability to work together, understand each others tendencies, and translate that to help them work with their older teammates on the turf is paying significant dividends for the Knighthawks this season despite them being a few of the younger players on the squad.

Withers is the NLL’s best man at the face-off X. He currently wins a league-best 65.5% of his face-offs. If he were to continue to maintain his lead, he would be the first rookie in the NLL to have the best face-off percentage (with a minimum of 200 face-offs won) since Geoff Snider in 2007.

Fannell and Shanks are having phenomenal years as well. With three games remaining in the regular season, the two have combined for 75 points (Shanks has 44, Fannell has 31). If Fannell can muster nine more points this season – he has nine points over his last two contests – they will become just the second rookie duo since the 18-game expansion in the the 2014 season to each have 40+ points. The Georgia Swarm’s 2016 rookie class consisting of Lyle Thompson, Jesse King, and Randy Staats are the only rookie teammates to have 40+ points in their first year.

“For a lack of a better word, they’ve been great,” Hasen said of Withers, Shanks, and Fannell. “They fit in very well. Each of them brings something different to our game and makes them successful but also makes us as a team be successful this year.”

“They’re not necessarily carrying the ball in their sticks all the time,” Hasen continued. “Fannell, he’s working very hard to get Cody Jamieson and Kyle Jackson open and he’s making the most of those opportunities. Austin, he’s very good at getting off-ball in the soft spots and he’s making the most of those chances, and, Jake Withers, he’s on the opposite end of the floor, but he’s been equally important to this team. They’re complimenting each other well but, they compliment the team, which is most important.”

If these three can finish their years strong, they could have the chance to all be selected for the NLL All-Rookie Team. If all three were to be chosen, they would be the only the third team with three or more players selected for the NLL All-Rookie Team in a single season going back to 2005 – the 2015 Colorado Mammoth and 2016 Georgia Swarm both had four players selected.

No mater what happens the rest of this season, however, it is clear that Jake Withers, Austin Shanks, and Eric Fannell are a few of the most skilled rookies in the game. Following two of last season’s NLL All-Rookie selections, Kyle Jackson and Josh Currier, the Knighthawks have a young team to be reckoned with for years to come.

“Our main focus is this season and bringing a Champion’s Cup back to Rochester, and bringing that back to all the fans who deserve it,” Withers said. But, you always look forward a little bit. So, the potential we have down the road to become a dynasty is pretty exciting.”

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