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Former U.S. President and Harvard alumnus Theodore Roosevelt, Class of 1880, popularized the saying, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." Almost a century later, Ed Pankau, co-captain of the men's volleyball team, has embodied the spirit of that message.
Never one to grandstand on the court or explode verbally off of it, Pankau plays professionally, practices methodically and respects his teammates. In an age of media-seeking superstars and flamboyant prima donnas, Pankau is a refreshing break from the ordinary--he prefers to do his job away from the glare of the spotlight.
This is not to imply that Pankau is undeserving of the spotlight. To the contrary, he has been the key player in the Crimson's recent success. The 6'7 senior middle blocker leads the team in blocks (19) and blocks per game (1.227), is second in hit percentage (.438) and third in kills (70). He is also one of just three players this year to have played in every game of every match.
What is truly compelling about Pankau, though, is not that he is a leader for his team as a senior at Harvard, but that he has been a leader on the court every year since high school.
Hailing from Los Olivos, California (pop. 900), he was one star out of many at Santa Ynez High School, a high school volleyball powerhouse. While there, he played volleyball with future first-team All-Americans Andy Witt and George Roumain. The team went an unprecedented 22-0 in Pankau's junior year and won all except one of their matches in 3-0 routs.
They handily won their second consecutive California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) championship and were considered by many sportswriters and coaches to be the best high school team that year in California, and perhaps even the nation.
Pankau, in his usual humble tone, plays down his role on the team.
"Those teams were awesome to play on," Pankau said, "George and Andy were amazing players and it was fun being on their team."
Although Roumain graduated after Pankau's junior year, Santa Ynez managed to win its third CIF title in as many years. Of course, Pankau defers credit for the team's performance to Witt. However, he fails to mention the impressive offensive and defensive contributions he made his senior year that led to his being recruited by several top volleyball colleges.
But with all of his athletic accolades in high school, Harvard's academic focus would seem like an unlikely choice.
"My sister had come to summer school here three years ago and the East Coast had always intrigued me," Pankau said. "Harvard kind of placed itself in my lap."
Luckily for Harvard, fate steered Ed Pankau to Cambridge. When he arrived in the fall of 1996, though, Harvard men's volleyball was not even on the map.
Joe Herger, a four-year teammate of Pankau's at Harvard, remembers the anonymity of their first year well.
"We were, for all intents and purposes, a club team with Division I status," Herger said, "No one even knew Harvard had a varsity men's volleyball team."
Not only was men's volleyball at Harvard poorly recognized in 1996, but it was also poorly funded. In Pankau's first two seasons, players on the team were expected to buy their own jerseys, shoes, athletic bags and airline tickets. By all accounts, the men's volleyball team was not the highest priority for the Harvard Department of Athletics. Also, the Crimson was perennially at the bottom of the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (EIVA), which made recruiting top players difficult.
Faced with such adversity, many would have either walked away or stayed and played for four years without caring much about the future of a debatably doomed organization.
True to his natural leadership, Pankau took on added responsibilities and decided to make a difference in men's volleyball.
At the end of his freshman year, Pankau was elected co-captain. Together with the other co-captain A.J. Lewis '99, he began to turn Harvard's volleyball program around. He started the team Web site--a personal project he has maintained for all four years--videotaped matches, recorded statistics, set up team meals and organized team transportation.
At the end of Pankau's sophomore year, Ishan Gurdal ended his 16-year tenure as Coach of the volleyball team. Again, Pankau decided to take an active role in improving the team. With Lewis' help, Pankau was able to convince respected coach Tom Wilson to lead Harvard's burgeoning program.
Wilson clearly remembers his first encounter with Pankau.
"I was struck by how professional and diligent he was," Wilson said, "I knew that if I was going to coach this team, he was going to be my leader both off and on the court."
Indeed, Pankau was a great leader in both places. Off the court, he has worked with Coach Wilson to improve the relations of the team with the Athletic Department. For instance, this year the players received their jerseys free of charge and were outfitted with sleek new shoes and spacious athletic bags.
Pankau is still working to have DHA pick up the tab for team flights out to California. Knowing his tenacity and determination, the team can expect to see results soon.
On the court, Pankau has been a steady presence and all-around leader. For his entire four-year career, Pankau has been in the top three in all significant statistical categories.
Pankau was fifth in the nation in hitting percentage his freshman year, 14th in the nation in blocking his sophomore year and led the nation in blocking last year. Aside from being phenomenal on paper, he also exudes a confidence on the court that pervades the other players.
"Ed is a silent leader who truly leads by example," junior co-captain Justin Micomonaco said, "What is truly amazing, though, is despite his superior level of play, Ed exhibits patience and reassurance to players still developing."
This encouraging confidence has pulled the Crimson through some of its most crucial moments this season. For instance, in a match against the Roger Williams Hawks, Harvard lost the second game after struggling to get a win in the first game. The momentum was obviously on Roger Williams' side, and the Hawks seemed ready to pounce upon the floundering Crimson.
Determined not to lose the match, Pankau proceeded to calmly execute his kill attempts efficiently and, during time outs, would casually exhort his teammates to step up. Harvard did just that and went on to a 3-1 win.
Another match in which Pankau's silent leadership made the difference was Tuesday's contest against MIT.
The Crimson, down 1-0 and then 2-1 in the match, was on the brink of blemishing its untarnished league record.
Amid the taunts and jeers of the boisterous MIT crowd, Pankau maintained his even demeanor, playing at his most relaxed in the pivotal fourth game. His silent resilience coaxed his teammates to prevail in a five-game struggle that preserved Harvard's perfect league record.
Harvard is now 5-1 overall and 3-0 in the EIVA, due in large part to Pankau. But aside from his influence on the success of this year's team, perhaps Pankau's most important contribution is to the continued success of the men's volleyball program. By helping to bring in Coach Wilson and by improving the recruiting relations with the Harvard Office of Admissions and Financial Aid, Pankau has secured a brighter future for Harvard Volleyball.
This year, as a testament to his pioneering work, Harvard was able to attract two sensational recruits--Mike Bookman from Toronto, Ont., and Alex Kowell from Pacific Palisades, Calif. Bookman, now the starting setter, remembers Pankau's influence during his recruiting visit last year.
"I was impressed not only by his work ethic and skill, but also by his amiability and class," Bookman said, "Ed is definitely one of the major reasons I chose to play volleyball at Harvard."
By attracting quality players like Bookman and Kowell, Pankau has undoubtedly solidified Harvard's presence in the EIVA. In fact, Pankau grins knowingly as he observes that this is Harvard's best team since he's been here. It is, without question, a team that Ed Pankau has built with his grit, determination and leadership.
As to the future, Pankau is surprisingly uncertain. With his degree in electrical engineering, he hopes to find a job that combines sports with the Internet or technology. He plans to play volleyball when he can, but he knows the excitement of collegiate volleyball will be hard to duplicate later on in life.
With a wistful glance out his window, Pankau commented on the totality of his life here at Harvard:
"I think playing Harvard volleyball has been perhaps the greatest experience of my life. I have formed some extremely close bonds with some amazing guys. I am going to miss volleyball--the road trips, the matches, the competition--but most of all, I'm going to miss my teammates."
It is safe to say Pankau will be sorely missed not only by his teammates, but also by all of those in the Harvard community who have had the good fortune of knowing such a respectable and admirable individual.
And, in the end, maybe Theodore Roosevelt was right. Perhaps it is better to speak softly and carry a big stick. Ed Pankau has certainly lived that philosophy, succeeding in all his varied endeavors and gaining the respect of those he has brought along for the ride.
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