May 13, 2010

NCAA Tournament Is Goalie's Grandest Stage

by Justin Feil | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Syracuse junior John Galloway can become just the third goalkeeper in NCAA history to win three Division I championships.

© Kevin P. Tucker

Jesse Schwartzman cemented his place among the greatest goalies in college history in large part because of his NCAA tournament performances. Schwartzman was Most Outstanding Player when Johns Hopkins won the 2005 and 2007 national championships.

“Jesse Schwartzman is a stone-cold winner,” said Brian “Doc” Dougherty, the former Maryland goalie who was MOP in 1995. “He played unbelievably. There’s tons of talk about who’s the best before tournament. After Memorial Day, there’s a pretty good idea who’s the best.”

The last two decades have seen brilliant performances between the pipes in NCAA tournament play. Dougherty was MOP despite the Terrapins’ loss to Syracuse in the championship game. Princeton’s Scott Bacigalupo won two MOPs. Tillman Johnson’s 2003 tournament, in which he allowed just 18 goals in four games for Virginia, is still talked about as one of the greatest playoff stretches ever.

“When you have all those people watching, you don’t want to disappoint,” said Schwartzman, who will open his Major League Lacrosse season with the Denver Outlaws on Saturday. “You really want to perform your best when it counts.”

This weekend, the latest crop of goalies takes its first cracks at legendary status. John Galloway already has a huge head start. The Syracuse goalkeeper is tops in the country in goals against average at 7.09 and fifth in save percentage at .590.

Most importantly, he has won the last two national championships.

“You can’t argue with his numbers,” Schwartzman said. “Being the backbone of that defense, he has to get some credit.”

When Syracuse won the national title in 2008, it was just the fifth time in NCAA history that a freshman goalie had won. Galloway made two overtime saves in the semifinal game.

“Freshman year, understanding that experience, I think I learned a lot,” Galloway said. “I’ve been carrying over the things I learned.”

None of the other four goalies to win as freshmen ever won another title, but Galloway followed it up with another national championship last year with 10 saves in the title game.

“Galloway is the best goalie out there,” said Denver head coach Bill Tierney. “He’s seeing the ball. He’s won two national championships. He’s been in every big game you can be in. His confidence is high. His eyes are transfixed on the ball all the time. To score on him, you have to hit almost the perfect shot. He’s gone from a good one to a great one.”

Tierney coached several great ones in 20 years at Princeton. Bacigalupo and Patrick Cairns both won two titles for the Tigers. Tierney’s own son, Trevor, was an All-American goalie in 2001, when Princeton last won the NCAA championship.

Galloway is hoping to join some elite company this month. No goalie has won three NCAA titles since 20 years ago, when Syracuse’s Matt Palumb capped a run of three straight in 1990. It was 30 years ago when Mike Federico won his third straight national crown with Hopkins. They are the only goalies with three titles.

“I think everyone feels a little extra pressure,” Galloway said. “If you lose, your season is over. It’s a chance to come out and do something special. The chance to bring home a third championship, it’s fun.”

Palumb, the MOP in 1988, was overshadowed by the Gait brothers in his run, but a good goalie can carry a team in the tournament.

“It’s the most important position in our sport, maybe in all sports,” said Dougherty, now an assistant coach at Penn. “When I felt like I was on, it didn’t matter what you did. It’s a tough thing to overcome when you’re playing against a hot goalie. I think a hot goalie can make all the difference.

Princeton's Tyler Fiorito goes up against Notre Dame's Scott Rodgers in a NCAA tournament first-round duel of two of the nation's top goalkeepers.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

The 2010 tournament begins at noon Saturday with a possible matchup that includes two freshmen goalies. Johns Hopkins’ Pierce Bassett will make just his seventh start of the season after taking over midway through the year for Mike Gvozden. Bassett is just 18 years old. He jumped from Arizona high school lacrosse to taking on top-10 programs in a year.

“You’re talking about probably the most difficult position in college lacrosse to step in and play,” said Hopkins head coach Dave Pietramala, whose team plays at Duke.

Bassett made a career-high 20 saves in the Blue Jays’ last win against Loyola. In his last three games, he has saved more than 70 percent of the shots he has faced.

“Since his arrival on campus, he announced immediately he was a talented young goalie that was going to be reckoned with,” Pietramala said. “Pierce saves the ball. And he clears it very well. When we made the change, we were very comfortable.”

It’s still not a definite that he will be opposed by another freshman. Freshman goalie Dan Wigrizer started 14 games for Duke, then was pulled in the ACC semifinal game and Mike Rock, junior with the Blue Devils, started the regular-season finale.

“We’ll see how practice goes this week,” said Duke head coach John Danowski. “We’ll decide after that.”

The only other freshman expected to start this weekend is Cornell’s AJ Fiore, who has started 14 of the Big Red’s 15 games. Starting a freshman in such a high profile spot brings extra challenges.

Said Danowski: “The pace of the game and stopping the ball and understanding team defense and the clearing game, there are so many factors that go in. With a freshman, you take that other stuff away from them – you don’t worry about them being a leader. First and foremost, you have to be able to stop the ball. You spend the early part of the year focusing on that in hopes that other things continue to evolve.

“You’re expected to be solid,” he added. “If on that day you can be spectacular, that’s a bonus. Solid over the course of a season can win you a lot of games.”

Cornell hosts Loyola, which pulled junior Jake Hagelin in the second half of its last game against Hopkins. But Hagelin, who started as a freshman for the Greyhounds, is having his best season to date. He is the only goalie in the tournament besides Galloway who is ranked in the top 20 in save percentage and the top five in goals allowed per game.

Hofstra did start freshman Rob Bellairs for seven games, but they have since turned to sophomore Andrew Gvozden for the last five games, and there’s no reason to suspect he won’t be in cage against Maryland on Saturday.

Maryland sports a senior between the pipes. Brian Phipps is in his fourth year as a starter, though last year ended unceremoniously when he blew out his knee while protesting a call in the first quarter of the Terrapins’ quarterfinals loss to Syracuse. Phipps’s playing experience is something that can’t be underestimated in the tournament situation. He delivered 13 saves in Maryland’s 13-5 win over North Carolina in the ACC semifinals.

“The most important thing that goalies learn,” Schwartzman said, “is leadership.”

Two of the top goalies in the game go head-to-head when Notre Dame and senior Scott Rodgers play at Princeton, which has sophomore Tyler Fiorito in goal for a second straight season. Fiorito last year became just the second Princeton freshmen to ever win an NCAA game. Schwartzman helped to develop Fiorito in his senior year at McDonogh.

“Tyler, I think he’s as good as they are out there,” said Princeton first-year coach Chris Bates. “He’s played big when it counted. He has made saves and helped orchestrate a clearing game.”

Clearing might be one of the most overlooked parts of the goalie job for those outside the game, but it factors heavily into who plays.

“When I felt like I was on, it didn’t matter what you did," says Team USA goalie Brian Dougherty, who won MOP honors with Maryland in the 1995 NCAA tournament. "It’s a tough thing to overcome when you’re playing against a hot goalie. I think a hot goalie can make all the difference."

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

“We were really struggling clearing the ball,” noted Tierney, who starts senior Pete Lowell in goal. “The last two games, we cleared it 100 percent. We’re getting better, and that’s due to him getting better with it. He’s had a couple really good games.”

The Pioneers haven’t allowed double figures in their last four games. Denver will be facing a proven goalie in Charlie Paar of Stony Brook. Paar is in his second year starting for the Seawolves after being named MVP of Nassau Community College's junior college championship victory in 2008.

There are plenty of good goalies among the unseeded teams, enough to test some of the powerhouses. Adam Ghitelman of top-seeded Virginia will be opposed by Mount St. Mary’s T.C. DiBartolo, a junior who leads the country with a .606 save percentage.

“Very few goalies have a 60 percent,” Danowski said. “There’s only one this year. In years past, you might have had six, seven or eight. It might be harder nowadays.”

Duke started something new in practice last season to help preserve its goalies. Danowski has a segment of each practice where he substitutes tennis balls for lacrosse balls to protect his goalies from the bruising and battering they take over a season.

“Shooting is more accurate,” he explained. “I think our shots on goal percentage is like 67 percent. So two out of every three shots, goalies are going to make saves or give up goals.”

A goalie who is making all the saves can take a team far. Delaware rode the inspired play of Noah Fossner to the Colonial Athletic Association championship and a berth in the NCAAs. Fossner, who lost his mother to breast cancer three days before the semifinal, was MVP after posting 30 saves in the CAA tournament.

“Our defense is playing at different level,” said Delaware head coach Bob Shillinglaw. “It’s helped our offense as well. They’re extremely excited as a defense. It all starts with Noah. He does a great job communicating. He’s been a major ingredient.”

If he can keep it going, it could help the Blue Hens put additional pressure on North Carolina, which has had some recent struggles in goal. Senior Chris Madalon was pulled in the second quarter after allowing nine goals in 23 minutes against Ohio State in the Tar Heels’ last game. He made 12 saves, but allowed 13 goals in the loss to Maryland the previous game.

“You’ve gotta have great goalie play at this point,” Shillinglaw said. “Faceoffs are key for giving you more possession. But the goalie part of it really gives everybody an extra sense of confidence.”

Thomas Palesky gives Army confidence. The junior was named MVP of the Patriot League tournament after making 29 saves in two games. Army likely will need a huge game from him against Syracuse, which starts a goalie that many consider the best in the game.

“That’s quite a big generalization,” Galloway said. “There are a lot of great goalies. All I’m focused on is winning another national championship.”

So are the other 15 goalies that will take to the field this weekend for the start of the NCAA tournament. Any one of them could end up a legend.

“Everybody,” Dougherty said, “wants to be the best. You need to have that statement game against the big boys.”


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