May 28, 2011

Maryland Rookie Shows Poise Between Pipes

by Paul Ohanian | | NCAA Men's Final Four Blog

Niko Amato backstopped a physical Maryland defense to make 13 saves Saturday in the Terps' 9-4 victory over Duke in the NCAA semifinals.

© Lee Weissman

BALTIMORE, Md. -- This time of year, coaches like to say that freshmen are no longer freshmen.

With a full season under their belt, their performance should no longer be characterized by the uneven and inconsistent play that is sometimes exhibited by first-year players.

The adage may be especially true of goalies, if a team is to have success in the postseason. To play deep into the playoffs, a team needs a freshman goalie to play beyond his years.

Maryland's Niko Amato has been happy to oblige.

While the rookie from Conshohocken, Pa., has been steady all season -- as evidenced by his All-ACC selection this year -- he's elevated his game even higher in the postseason.

The latest manifestation of that came in Saturday's 9-4 NCAA semifinal victory over Duke. Aided in part by Amato's 13-save performance, the Terps are now one victory away from bringing the NCAA championship back to College Park for the first time since 1975.

That was 15 years before Amato was even born.

"Our ultimate goal from before the season was to win a national championship," he said. "I know the history. It means so much to be a part of this team."

With a veteran defense in front of him, the popular thinking was that all Amato had to do this season as a redshirt freshman was make all the routine saves.

An experienced defensive unit, led by the starting close defense of Ryder Bohlander, Max Schmidt and Brett Schmidt, along with veteran long poles Brian Farrell and Jesse Bernhardt, would take care of the heavy lifting.

And there's no disputing that the unit has lived up to its billing. Maryland is back in the national championship game for the first time since 2006 in large part due to the work of its backline.

The Terps' defense kept Duke off the scoreboard for a stretch of 18 minutes in the first half, and for another 22 minutes in the second half.

"Our long poles and close defensemen are very physical, athletic and smart," Amato said. "They let me see the shots I'm comfortable with stopping. I give them a lot of credit."

But Amato has done more than just come along for the ride. He has started all 17 games and entered Saturday's semifinal showdown against Duke with a .578 save percentage and 6.81 goals against average.

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More importantly, he has played some of his best lacrosse in the postseason.

It started with a 13-save effort in his first NCAA tournament game, the first-round win over North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

That performance was highlighted by a huge, seven-save third quarter against the Tar Heels.

He followed with nine saves in last week's upset of Syracuse in the quarterfinals, including a stop on Jovan Miller's potential game-winner in overtime.

And now, the rookie delivered another stellar showing on the game's biggest stage to help guide his veteran squad to the brink of a championship.

"Niko let us hang in there until we got going," said Maryland coach John Tillman. "That's a credit to Niko. It's incredible what he's doing."

Perhaps it has something to do with playing Duke. Two of Amato's best games this season have come against the defending national champion Blue Devils.

Prior to Saturday, Amato's career performance had been his 19-save effort at Duke in the 9-8 overtime loss on March 5, keeping Maryland in the game. He had eight saves in the third quarter alone in that game.

"He's a great goalie to play the way he has all season," said Duke midfielder Justin Turri. "He made some great saves early that got them momentum. That put things in their favor."

Amato is quick to deflect much of the credit for his success.

"These are great guys, and they have been very welcoming of me as a freshman," he said of the veterans that surround him. "It's kind of funny, because I committed to Maryland as a junior [in high school], so I feel like I've known these guys for a lot longer than I did."

Speaking like a veteran, he's also quick to note that the job has not yet been completed.

"Our mission's still not over," he said. "We've still got to go on Monday and take care of business."

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