Navy junior Chris Fennell is often compared to some of the best defensemen who have ever played Division I college lacrosse.
His size, speed and athleticism make him an imposing figure in front of the Midshipmen's goal.
After another successful season, Fennell was named the 2016 Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year, joining Jordan DiNola (2008) as the only Midshipmen to win the award. Fennell, however, is the only player in program history to take home the award twice and the first in league history to earn it in back-to-back seasons since Army's Bill Henderson (2010 and 2011).
"As a competitor, I am always looking at ways to improve my game," said Fennell, who was also a unanimous first-team selection in the Patriot League. "I am still looking to improve my off-ball play and sliding angles to help make me a better team defensemen."
Fennell said Navy has been successful this season because of the team's dedication to improving, both individually and as a team.
Navy had the nation's top scoring defense during the regular season. The Mids allowed 88 goals in 13 games and were the only team in Division I lacrosse to allow fewer than seven goals per game.
In addition, Navy held nine of 13 opponents to single digits in scoring this season. This was the first time since 1970 that a Navy defense has held two opponents to one or fewer goals during the same season -- Delaware (5-1) Feb. 21 and Sacred Heart (7-1) April 22.
"It's a heck of a defense, led by Chris Fennell," said Navy coach Rick Sowell, who was named the 2016 Patriot League Coach of the Year. "It's a defense that doesn't have a weakness, to be honest with you. These guys are very serious about their craft. They watch a ton of film. The chemistry is good."
For Fennell, this year's honors are the culmination of hard work and unwavering commitment to become a better player. The junior's 6-foot-2, 211-pound frame provides matchup challenges for most opponents. In addition, he is a quick player who can beat opponents to ground balls or run a counter-attack.
"I use my size, length and speed to keep opposing attackmen off balanced," he said. "I think my size allows me to adapt my defensive style to fit the attackman I may be covering and keep them guessing."
Last season, Fennell recovered from a broken leg that prematurely ended his freshman year to earn USILA third-team All-American recognition. In addition, he was named the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year, first-team All-Patriot League, a first-team ECAC Division I All-Star and was a member of the Patriot League all-tournament team. He also took home the Lt. Robert T. Bianchi Award, which goes to Navy's Most Valuable Player.
This year, Fennell, along with defensive teammate Matt Rees (Boys' Latin), was named to the watch list for the Tewaaraton Award, which goes to the nation's top player.
"It always feels good to be recognized for an award of this magnitude, but I knew that the award is for a whole season, and you cannot celebrate awards like that in March and April," Fennell said. "My teammates are always supportive of me and keep me humble and focused on the team."
At the conclusion of the regular season, Fennell and Rees were atop the Mids' list for caused turnovers with 21 each, tied for the fifth most in school history.
Off the field, Fennell and Rees are close friends. That strong bond has helped the chemistry of the entire defense.
"Matt and I have been close friends ever since we met at [Naval Academy Preparatory School] four years ago," Fennell said. "We have been playing together for a long time and both have a tremendous amount of confidence in the other's abilities. We both hold each other to an exceptionally high standard.
"... Matt and I, along with our other three-year defensive starter, John Trainor, have developed a relationship on the field where we know what the other is going to do before they even do it. Off the field, the two of us, along with John, are the best of friends, and you will always find us together out on the weekends."
In 2012, Fennell graduated from Delaware Valley Regional High School in Frenchtown, N.J., where he was a three-sport athlete in football, basketball and lacrosse. Even at an early age, he showed leaderships skills. He was named captain of the football and lacrosse teams his junior and senior years. He then attended Navy prep school before heading to Annapolis, Md., full-time.
"The stats don't tell the whole story with Chris and the impact he has and the role he plays on our team," Sowell said. "First of all, he's a good athlete. He's really quick. He's also very smart. He is an intelligent player with [a] very high lacrosse I.Q."
In addition to his athleticism, Fennell is a stellar student. The rigors of balancing academics and athletes can be challenging at the distinguished Naval Academy, so time management is essential. Fennell said fitting in time to sleep can even be difficult.
"The ability to compartmentalize your day is paramount to having success while at Navy," he said. "There is always time built into every day for sports, school and sleep, but it is up to you to figure out what works best for you and to budget your time accordingly. Personally, I like to follow a daily planner and block out the time I will spend on activities daily."
After graduation, Fennell said he is looking forward to the opportunity to serve in the United States Armed Forces. He said he would like to pursue a career in coaching, following in the footsteps of his Naval Academy Preparatory School coach, Jon Birsner
However, Fennell still has another year of lacrosse to firmly entrench himself among the game's all-time greats.
Issue 221: May 2016