May 13, 2014

Tuesdays with Corey: Waldt Plays Big for Bryant

Redshirt sophomore goalie originally committed to school for football

by Corey McLaughlin | | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

Bryant goalie Gunnar Waldt made eight fourth-quarter saves in the Bulldogs' win at Syracuse on Sunday night. The 5-foot-10, 235-pound Waldt tries to use his size to his advantage. (Kevin P. Tucker)

Bryant goalie Gunnar Waldt is low maintenance in his pursuit of a high save percentage.

Before a practice or even a game, he's not one to ask for too many warm-up shots. A couple minutes are all that's necessary. During the week, in his preparation off the field, it's much of the same. Waldt tries not to watch tape of shooters' tendencies, because it could lead to a guessing game of sorts on game day. And that only complicates things.

"I like to go in there kind of blank and rely on my reactions and feel the game out," Waldt said. "Once you start guessing, if you guess wrong a couple times, it doesn't work out for you in the end. I just like to read and react."

Waldt went from goalie-you've-heard-of-doing-good-things status to a collegiate lacrosse household name on national television Sunday night, when he turned away eight shots in the fourth quarter of Bryant's 10-9 win over second-seeded Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. He and his teammates' phones filled with congratulatory messages for the upset win by the time they got to the team bus outside.

With a lingering ankle tweak left over from Bryant's play-in game win over Siena four days earlier, Waldt felt it out early that Syracuse players seemed to be shooting low on him, and adjusted. And late, he played his best, stoning Orange defenseman Matt Harris on a low offering during Syracuse's attempted fourth-quarter comeback, and playing big on the game's final play.

Waldt hugged the pipe and took up a lot of net as Syracuse's most accurate shooter, Dylan Donahue, charged down the right wing for the potential game-tying goal in the final seconds. Waldt read Donahue's stick and dropped low. The ball caromed off the post.

On Monday afternoon, after a fun, loud ride back to Bryant's campus in Rhode Island, Waldt still wasn't sure if he got a piece of it. "I don't think so, but it doesn't really matter," he said.

He's big, 5-foot-10 and 235 pounds. He's strong, a former fullback on the Bryant football team. In 31 years of coaching, Bryant head coach Mike Pressler said he's never had a goalie see the ball as well as Waldt does. And he's a blend of easygoing and emotional that works just quite well for him.

"He's not one of the spastic, crazy jump-around type goalies," said Bryant assistant coach Brad Ross, who coaches the Bulldogs' goalies. "But I wouldn't say he's completely flat-lined, either. He's got a great demeanor. He is excitable. He holds his teammates accountable. But at the same time, he does have a short memory."

He also finds joy in fulfilling the primary job description of a goaltender, stopping the ball, while using his size to his advantage.

"It's just a natural instinct, I guess," Waldt said. "I'm comfortable in net and not afraid to get hit.

"You try to play your angles as best you can. Keep a wide base, take up most of the goal and give them little to shoot at. Try to make them be extra precise. Hopefully it hits you or you hit it with your stick, or if they are trying to be too precise, then they'll shoot it wide or high."

Waldt has a 61.0-percent save percentage, the highest of any goalie left in the NCAA tournament, and the fourth best number in the nation this season behind Detroit's Jason Weber (64.2), Army's Sam Somers (62.2) and, by a hair, Loyola's Jack Runkel (61.1). Of any goalie in the country, Waldt has played the most games (19) and minutes.

He's making up for lost time. Waldt also played football and baseball growing up in Freeland, Md., near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, and committed to Bryant to play football, not lacrosse, after playing both sports in high school at St. Paul's (Md.) in Baltimore. Waldt played a year of football at Bryant, but stopped after his freshman season because of knee injuries.

He started playing lacrosse in first grade and often played a half of defense and a half of goalie in youth games. He played goalie his first year of middle school, but switched to defense and played that position into his first two years at St. Paul's. After that, he considered giving up the sport altogether and returning to baseball before his junior year. Waldt played catcher, and his father, Richard, played baseball at Coastal Carolina and was a scout for MLB's Baltimore Orioles and the Milwaukee Brewers. He's taken a break from full-time scouting while Waldt plays in college.

With other players projected ahead of him, Waldt thought he didn't have a chance to crack the varsity lacrosse lineup as a defender, but took up playing goalie full-time after St. Paul's coach Rick Brocato suggested he give it a try in what was to be an open competition for the starting job.

Waldt took the opportunity and ran with it. By the middle of the year, he was named captain. He made 219 saves his junior season, six shy of the St. Paul's all-time single season record, and allowed less than six goals per game as the program beat Boys' Latin (Md.) by 10 goals for the celebrated MIAA A conference title in Baltimore.

The same year, a similar sized goalie in Notre Dame's Scott Rodgers was named NCAA tournament MVP even in a losing effort. Waldt watched and was inspired from the stands at M&T Bank Stadium, but he still had his mind set on playing football in college. Waldt played varsity football at St. Paul's as a fullback and linebacker since his sophomore year.

In a similar way as last year's NCAA tournament MVP - Duke's faceoff man Brendan Fowler -headed to campus in Durham looking to play football, Waldt chose Bryant's campus in Smithfield, R.I.

Sometimes the recruits find you. Ross and fellow Bulldogs assistant coach Casey Brodersen joined Pressler's staff in August 2010 at Bryant, around the same time Waldt decided on going to college there and playing football. It was the middle of the summer recruiting period. After hearing the information about a goalie he had seen play in high school, Ross was stunned to learn they'd be in the same place.

"To find out a kid as good as him was going to be on campus, it was like the easiest recruiting job of all-time," Ross said.

Waldt received an email from Ross and Pressler three days after committing to play football, asking if he was interested in playing both sports. What a great opportunity, Waldt wrote back.

He played out his senior season at St. Paul's in 2011, which ended in the MIAA A semifinals and redshirted in lacrosse his first year at Bryant with a three-year starter Jameson Love already in place. But in the fall of his freshman year, while playing football, Waldt still showed up to the field at 7 a.m. on weekday mornings to go through fall ball runs with the Bulldogs lacrosse team.

"Here was a guy who wasn't going to play whatsoever," Ross said. "Early on, I figured that spoke to his character."

Waldt won a goalie battle in his redshirt sophomore year against a true freshman Tom Carey (who would transfer to Ohio State), earning the keys to the crease after nine games. He finished with a 56.2 save percentage, and the season ended with a loss to Syracuse in the Carrier Dome in the NCAA tournament first round.

If there's been improvement this year, aside from the elite-level save percentage, Waldt is giving up less rebounds, Ross said, and is more effective clearing than as a freshman. All the while, he flashes his trademark fearlessness.

"I've never seen a kid that attacks the ball like him," Ross said. "Inside, he's jumping at shots. It doesn't matter if I'm shooting 110 miles per hour from 10 yards, he doesn't flinch. He's like a big brick wall."

Sunday night provided an opportunity for sweet redemption for Bryant. Same spot, same time as last year's first round game. "It was pretty wild," Waldt said. With Waldt in net and one of the best faceoff specialists in the country, Kevin Massa, on their side, Bryant can find comfort that they have a chance in every game.

Bryant typically starts every game in a man-to-man defense, evaluating if it's working against the particular offensive personnel of the opponent. If it is, they'll stick with it. If not, they'll head to their zone looks. In a win against Drexel earlier in the year, it was about half and half. Against Syracuse, Bryant went to a zone early and stayed with it the rest of the game.

"They played a great game, especially the goaltender," Syracuse coach John Desko said after. "They were giving us the outside shots and he's making the saves. Like in basketball, if you're not hitting your threes you're going to see zones like that."

Waldt has input with the coaching staff as to which defense to play. If he's seeing the ball well, he'll let them know. In those zone sets, Waldt is in charge of not only stopping the ball, but directing traffic in front, alerting defenders of cutters behind that they may not see and when to pass midfielders or attackmen off to another teammate in the set.

Syracuse outshot Bryant 38-27, but couldn't bust the zone consistently.

"We couldn't make enough plays to force them to play our game," said Syracuse attackman Kevin Rice, who scored three goals on 12 shots. "We played their game most of the day, and in the end, we couldn't make enough plays."

The final play was made by Waldt. In their sideline huddle with 7.9 seconds to go, ahead by one, the plan called to lock off Donahue from getting the ball if Syracuse won the faceoff. But Chris Daddio won it quick and gave it to the Orange's most efficient shooter.

As the shot came from a sharp angle to his left, Waldt took up the net one more time.

"When you get the ball and look at the goal, there's not a lot of goal to shoot for," Ross said. "People tend to shoot smaller on him. He's a bigger kid, he's very good in his position in the cage. When you get to those low angles, there's just not a lot of goal to shoot for."

It was jubilation for the Bulldogs, and an adrenaline rush for Waldt.

"If you're playing at any type of level, you want that ball," he said. "You want it to be in your hands, kind of the game running through you. It's either going to be all you if you lose or you make big plays. How could you not in that environment?"

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