NCAA men’s lacrosse final: Maryland goalie Niko Amato’s confidence vital to Terps’ chances


University of Maryland goalie Niko Amato makes a save on a shot on goal by Justin Turri of Duke during the fourth quarter of their NCAA Division I men's lacrosse semifinal game in Baltimore. (JOE GIZA/REUTERS)
May 29, 2011

The plan for the Maryland men’s lacrosse team’s goalies in 2010 was for four-year starter Brian Phipps to keep the job and Niko Amato, then a freshman, to redshirt to preserve a year of eligibility.

The plan was acceptable to everyone but Amato.

“He came in and told Phipps he was going to take his starting job,” Maryland senior co-captain Dan Burns said of Amato. “We said, ‘This kid is crazy. What is he doing out here?’ . . . But as a defense, you want a confident goalie. To have someone that young with that much confidence and pride in his goaltending is pretty special.”

Amato did not beat out Phipps for the starting job last year. This year, however, he is a big reason the Terrapins have reached the NCAA title game for the first time since 1998. Unseeded Maryland (13-4)will face No. 7 Virginia (12-5) for the championship Monday at 3:30 p.m. at M&T Bank Stadium.

Maryland is seeking its first NCAA title since 1975.

The starting defense — seniors Ryder Bohlander, Max Schmidt and Brett Schmidt — has teamed with Amato to hold playoff opponents to 19 percent shooting (15 for 77).

On Monday, Maryland’s defense will face an offense with equally impressive numbers. In three NCAA games, the Cavaliers are shooting 43 percent (40 for 92).

Virginia’s offense has changed in the past four games, after starting midfielders Rhamel and Shamel Bratton were suspended. The Cavaliers are initiating their offense with junior Steele Stanwick, a first-team all-American attackman. He has nine goals and 11 assists in the tournament.

Maryland Coach John Tillman said Virginia gets the ball to Stanwick early on almost all of its possessions.

“It’ll be a huge challenge,” Tillman said. “They’ll run a pick for [Stanwick] and then you have to make a decision. Can you fight through the pick, can you make a switch? . . . You put the ball in your best player’s hand as much as possible, because usually good things happen. And Steele Stanwick is terrific. Good things happen when you get him the ball.”

Maryland counters with Amato, who clearly has Virginia’s attention.

One of Amato’s best saves came in a 12-7 victory over Virginia on April 2. Senior midfielder John Haldy had a wide-open, point-blank shot, and he shot quickly. Amato was out of position but reached backand stopped the ball mid-air.

“I played against him in high school,” Haldy said. “He was very good in high school and he’s very good now. Not much has changed.”

Amato has been just as good in the playoffs: He has 35 saves and has given up 15 goals (70 percent). His play is reminiscent of what Brian “Doc” Dougherty did for Maryland in the 1995 tournament.

Then, the Terrapins reached the title game and Dougherty was named tournament MVP after he made 59 saves and gave up 32 goals (64.8 percent).

There is at least one other similarity: Dougherty tutored Amato in high school outside Philadelphia. Dougherty has said Amato is the best goalie he has coached.

“He’s very confident,” Dougherty said of Amato. “That’s probably his best attribute. He’s had that since he was young. . . . He’s pretty funny, too. [Last week] I told him to focus on his breathing [during games] and he texted back, ‘Thanks, Yoda Doc.’ ”

Dougherty had a knack for being loose; when asked before the 1995 semifinals if he hated Maryland’s upcoming opponent, Johns Hopkins, Dougherty said yes. But with his physique, he added, he was not about to do much about it.

Amato showed a similar loose style after the 9-4 victory over Duke in Saturday’s semifinal. The postgame news conferences are shown on in-house televisions in the locker rooms. Knowing that his teammates and assistant coaches were watching the news conference back in the locker room, Amato took a second from being serious and furtively waved at the camera.

It may be appropriate that Amato is channeling one of the great goalies in the program’s history, because the current Maryland players are mindful of playing for those who did not win a championship.

“We’re out there representing all those teams who haven’t won it in the last 35 years at the University of Maryland,” Burns said. “We’re going to do our best to give our blue-collar mentality and make those tough plays in the middle of the field to bring Maryland a championship.”

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