February 10, 2012

Season Preview (MD1): No. 7 Maryland

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com

"Niko wants to be great," Maryland coach John Tillman said of the Terps' sophomore goaltender.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

As a redshirt freshman goalie playing in front of three senior defenders and multi-year starters, it was only natural for Niko Amato to defer to Max Schmidt, Brett Schmidt and Ryder Bohlander in 2011. He could make the easy saves, get the Terrapins organized on clears and let the seniors carry the load.

It will be a different story in 2012. With Maryland replacing its entire close defense from its NCAA runner-up squad — Schmidt, Schmidt and Bohlander — Amato has taken on a new role as the leader and voice of the Terps' defense.

"Niko was in a great situation last year with some upperclassmen who could take on the responsibility, which allowed Niko to just be a young guy," said coach John Tillman, who in his first season took Maryland to the finals for the first time since 1998. "But what I'm most impressed with is what he did in the fall in terms of his leadership, making the guys around him better. His approach coming in could have been taking things for granted and saying, 'All right, well, I'm the starter, so I'm just going to play.' But Niko doesn't want to be good. Niko wants to be great."

Senior captain Joe Cummings said Amato's emergence as a leader started at the end of the 2011 season, as he started to get more comfortable and confident in the defense. Amato starred in the NCAA tournament, when he made 43 saves in four games, holding postseason opponents to 23.3 percent shooting (24-for-103).

Amato has a knack for the big moment, and that made a lasting impression on the lacrosse world — along with the Terps. Cummings called Amato "the ultimate game-changer, and probably the hardest goalie in the country to score on when he's hot."

"On the big stage, in the big moments, he always stepped up to the table and rose to the occasion," Tillman said. "If you ask anybody, to a man, every single guy has the ultimate confidence in Niko. And if you could pick any goalie in the country, and it was a big game, everybody would want Niko between the pipes. We all believe in him. We all want him to be our guy. And we wouldn't trade him for anybody."

As a program, Maryland prides itself on playing physical, suffocating defense, and Amato will be its linchpin in 2012.

Junior captain Jesse Bernhardt, who played long-stick midfield last year, is the unit's most experienced returning player and could see time at close. Redshirt freshman Casey Ikeda missed 2011 with a shoulder injury but will fill one of the open spots, while sophomores Michael Erhardt and Emmett Cahill, and talented freshman Goran Murray are all in the mix.

Attackers Grant Catalino (31 goals, 11 assists) and Ryan Young also graduated, but Maryland returns a group of hybrid midfielder-attackers, like Owen Blye. "He is the man," Cummings said of Blye. "He had been a bit of a role player in the past, but he's going to be the quarterback of the offense this year. He's really going to flourish."

Cummings and Blye will see time at both positions, which makes Maryland's offense flexible and dynamic.

Tillman identified Kevin Forster as the fall's most consistent freshman, and he will contribute at attack.

"We loved those seniors, and we certainly would love to have them back, but you kind of knew what you were getting with them," Tillman said. "We're going to be different this year, and maybe we'll be a little bit more unpredictable, which makes it harder for defenses to pin down what exactly we're doing."

This article appears in the February issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription to LM. Follow LaxMagazine.com all season long, and check out the Tigers' team page.

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