Paul Cantabéné might be the only guy in professional lacrosse who can face-off, score, play defense, win a championship and a player of the year award and still get overlooked. He's a throw-back to an era before specialization, although he's hardly a geezer, since he graduated from college only a decade ago. Cantabéné brings a unique brand of substance over style to the game. Yet his on field ever-presence with the Philadelphia Wings of the National Lacrosse League and to the Major Lacrosse League champion Baltimore Bayhawks has never translated into the superstardom that some lesser players enjoy. It might be the tough-nose old-school mentality he brings to the game or the major stars he's shared the stage with on each team, but everyone, and we mean everyone, even pronounces his name incorrectly.
Paul's an Italian American and his proud mother will tell you, and has told us, it's pronounced "Cantabeneh". But after years of being "the beaner", even Paul pronounces it the Baltimorized way on his message machine at the University of Maryland lacrosse office. Once at a Bayhawks home game, an E-Lacrosse staffer sat in the press box right next to the stadium announcing crew. When they announced Paul's name, the staffer mentioned that Paul's mom was actually in the audience that day and she would be thrilled to hear it pronounced the right way for once. The announcers began pronouncing it correctly on a flurry of goals by Cantabéné, "and CANTABENAAAY with another goal on an assist from Josh Sims" but after the E-Lax staffer left the room the announcers concluded that he may have been pulling their legs and the incorrect pronunciation was back for good.
So it's OK to pronounce his name wrong. But, the indoor league didn't even include his incorrectly pronounced name among the top face-off artists on a survey on the league website. Of the five mentioned on NLL.com's ballot for best face-off man, only fellow Loyola College alum Jamie Hanford had a better face-off percentage, .641 to .602 for Cantabéné. Columbus' Rodney Tapp (.579), New York's Joe Ghedina (.527), Calgary's Brad MacArthur (.519) and New Jersey's Gordon Purdie (.504) were all behind Philly's finest in that crucial stat. The rigged election process is a kind of passive put-down, but it really has no effect on Cantabéné, who is more interested in competition than celebrity. Indoor or out, in the confines of a venue built for ice hockey or in the wide open spaces of a regulation-sized field, Cantabéné is adaptable, aggressive and ever-anxious for the next win.
University of Maryland Coach Dave Cottle recruited Cantabéné out of Irondequoit High in upstate New York when the Terp skipper was at Loyola College. The newcomer paid immediate dividends. "I saw him at The Empire Games," said Cottle. "He had the ability to go to the goal and make plays. And he wasn't afraid to have the ball in his stick at the end of a game." When the Greyhounds knocked off Virginia in Cantabéné's freshman year, Cottle knew he had someone special. "He had two or three goals in that game and was just terrific," said Cottle, who shaped the Loyola program for 19 years and is in his second season in College Park - with Cantabéné as an assistant.
From a promising rookie campaign to a Second-Team All-America
designation as a senior (under-rated even then by many accounts), the midfielder quickly climbed to an elite level. His post-collegiate résumé keeps getting better. He's on a 10-year run in the NLL and earned a reputation as "hardest working guy on the field" as part of the pre-MLL Mt. Washington Club, winning the 1995 United States Club Lacrosse Association Championship and an E-Lacrosse Outdoor Player of the Year award in 2000. As a key cog in the Bayhawks' title run last Labor Day in Columbus, Cantabéné added luster to an already bulging dossier.
He was simply superb in the Bayhawks' blowout 21-13 victory over nemesis Long Island in the MLL final in which he grabbed 20 of 32 face-offs and scored his third and fourth goals of the postseason for the 12-4 Baltimoreans. "Cantabéné dominated on draws," said Gary Gait, responding to a query on the factors that contributed to the triumph in Crew Stadium that snapped a three-game losing streak to the defending champion Lizards. "We got on a roll and got to (Long Island goalie Brian) Carcaterra early," said Cantabéné. "I think a lot of people thought Long Island would win, but we responded. Everybody had a role."
A fierce competitor on the field and sideline
Cantabéné has passed on much of his knowledge from that and other experiences while an assistant to Tony Seaman at Johns Hopkins and Towson and now at Maryland under Cottle. Seaman noted that Cantabéné helped guide some of the game's best face-off specialists, from Werner Krueger and Peter Jacobs - a Wings teammate - at Hopkins to Justin Berry and Zak Smith at Towson. "He's just a lacrosse rat," said Seaman, who employed Cantabéné for seven years prior to the '03 season. "He loves to play and he loves to talk about lacrosse. But he can be tough on the kids. He expects a lot out of them."
Cantabéné in the NLL All-Star Game
He also has high expectations for himself. As usual, Cantabéné is delivering the goods. In seven games for the 3-5 Wings (2nd in the weak Eastern Division behind Colorado), Cantabéné has a dozen goals and 13 assists. He leads the squad in face-offs, loose balls (73) and desire. His five-goal, one-assist outburst in late January dropped Colorado and Bayhawk coach Gait, 13-11, to secure the Wings' first win of the season. Marty O'Neil, General Manager of the Philadelphia Wings is pleased with his off-season acquisition, "Peter Jacobs wasn't 100%. He's come back well but we weren't sure then. We might have really needed a face-off guy. Paul was an unrestricted free agent so we were interested. The Mammoth made him their franchise player and we had to give up a number one pick in the supplemental draft (when Montreal folded) for him." But Cantabéné paid off pretty quickly, O'Neil attests, "He won that first home game against the Mammoth by himself".
That he picked up right where he left off after last year's outstanding showing with the Washington Power should not come as a big surprise. He collared 58% of his face-offs with D.C. and registered 60 points (18 goals, 42 assists) for a 9-7 club. "I think he's been among the best indoor players for three or four years," said Seaman about Cantabéné. "He's tenacious. [He's] a warrior with a heart as big as they come." With injuries all around this season, O'Neil loves Cantabéné's versatility, "He'll play right and left, plays defense and takes draws. He's unbelievable in the way he can play anywhere on the floor with no fear."
Playing well early on likely helped the Baltimore - Pittsburgh - Washington star make the transition to the Wings. "His intensity was intimidating for some of the younger guys and I think that was good for them. The Wings weren't his team when he first got here. He had been the enemy for years and always played well against us." Admits O'Neil, "It took him a while to feel totally comfortable with the team but now he'll smack a guy in practice and expect to get smacked back later and does. It's all just adding to the intensity."
That inner fortitude and physical tenacity first became apparent to anyone in lacrosse when Cantabéné was called up at the end of his freshman year at Irondequoit for a big game against Fairport. Cantabéné made his presence felt by scoring twice in a tough loss to the eventual New York state Class A finalists. And that was only a year after he picked up a stick for the first time. "I didn't start playing until the eighth grade," said Cantabéné. "My brother got me a stick. I liked the fact that you could run up and down the field and hit somebody. That appealed to me." It must still be appealing, because in pro lacrosse the hits just keep on coming. "You have to be tough to play indoors," said Seaman. "You have to be able to hand back to them what they give you when the refs aren't looking."
Paul married US Lacrosse's Tracy Whetstone in 2002
The MLL is also a haven for rough stuff and Cantabéné is both recipient and provider. "He's the most determined, stubborn and surly guy we have on our roster," said Bayhawks' co-owner Gordon Boone about the 5-foot-11, 195-pound middie. "You look at him in the locker room and he's not all that big or powerfully built and he gets the living crap beaten out of him. He's got marks all over his body. But he's the first guy to mix it up and he won't back down." Not that people notice. Cantabéné will likely continue to be a paradox, performing at an all-star level but never grabbing the credit he deserves.
That's why we put him in the E-Lacrosse Spotlight.