May 21, 2014

Amato the Backbone of Maryland's Final Four Run

by Gary Lambrecht | | Twitter | Lambrecht Archive

Niko Amato has been the man in Maryland's cage since the start of his freshman year, starting every game since the arrival of head coach John Tillman. Can he and the Terrapins take home a first NCAA crown since 1975? (Lee Weissman)

On February 19, 2011, a redshirt freshman goalie named Niko Amato made three saves and allowed three goals in Maryland's season-opening, 16-4 victory over Detroit Mercy.

Amato has ruled the cage for the Terrapins ever since.

As the backbone of the Maryland defense for the past four seasons, Amato, the 5-feet-8, 185-pound package of quick hands, snappy outlet passes and cool demeanor, has been the class of the Atlantic Coast Conference and one of the sport's best pretty much since he earned his first starting nod.

Amato has done just about everything a goalie could do in College Park except win a national title, which Maryland has failed to do since 1975. His 48 career victories are the most by any active Division I goalie. His 615 career saves ranked third all-time at Maryland. He has won eight of 11 postseason contests.

On Saturday, when the seventh-seeded Terps face sixth-seeded Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament semifinals at M&T Bank Stadium, Amato will try to help Maryland get to its third NCAA final during his tenure.

Maryland coach John Tillman, whose 48-18 record in four years is the same as Amato's, took a peek this week into how things will look without his two-time All-American – and possibly this year's first-team All-American – standing between the pipes.

"There's going to be a big void when Niko leaves," Tillman said. "He's been a model of consistency. He's played well in big games. We've leaned on him a ton, and he's always risen to the occasion. I don't take for granted what he's meant to our program. I've got to think he's one of the best goalies to play in the last 10 years or so."

"It gives us a lot of confidence to be aggressive [on defense], knowing [Amato] is back there," senior LSM Michael Ehrhardt said. "He's going to make all of the easy saves, and he's going to clean up our mess and eat some shots that other goaltenders let in. He always has our back."

And to think that, by the time he began attending LaSalle College High School while growing up near Philadelphia, Amato was just beginning to discover his true calling on the lacrosse field.

"Up until the eighth grade, I had played a bunch of positions," Amato recalled. "By the time I went to LaSalle, I realized that goalie was in my future."

By the time Amato had played for two seasons at LaSalle, it was clear he had exceptional potential minding the net. Twice, he was named an all-state goalie and a US Lacrosse High School All-American, while leading the Explorers to a pair of championships.

During his time at LaSalle, Amato also developed a close, tutorial relationship with Maryland goalie legend Brian Dougherty, who was still playing professionally while working as a private goalkeeping instructor. That Maryland connection would pay dividends for the Terps.

On the same, late September day early in his junior year, Amato officially answered the recruiting calls of Johns Hopkins and Maryland. His first visit was at Hopkins.

That evening, Amato watched a fall practice at Maryland, after which former Terps coach Dave Cottle offered him a scholarship. Amato verbally committed to Maryland the next day.

Amato spent his true freshman year as one of the backups behind then-senior Brian Phipps. Until about halfway through the 2010 season, the idea of redshirting was not part of Amato's thinking.

"I was doing well with the scout team. Maybe it was delusional, but every week I prepared to be the starter. I was always confident I could do it," Amato said. "About halfway through the year, I decided to talk to the coaches about redshirting, because I didn't want to lose the whole year [on the bench]."

By the fall of 2010, after Tillman had replaced Cottle, the only goalie standing in Amato's path was senior Mark White. By the end of the fall season, it was a dead heat. But White injured his knee during the preseason. Amato stepped in, stepped up and took over.

Dating to that 2011 opener against Detroit Mercy, Amato has started every one of Maryland's 66 games. He also wasted little time cultivating a reputation as a big-game stopper. Amato averaged 11 saves in the Terps' four, NCAA tournament games, including 13-save gems against North Carolina (first round) and Duke (semifinals).

Take a look at Amato's consistency. He is the only goalie ever to be named all-ACC four times, and was voted the league's defensive player of the year this spring. He has allowed just 7.3 goals per game in his career, and is currently ranked fourth (7.23) in Division I. He has spent nearly all of his four years at Maryland ranked among the nation's top 10 in save percentage.

"He's terrific," Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan said of Amato. "He sits on his lines and trusts himself. He throws great outlet passes. He's the package as a goalie."

Ehrhardt has seen so many Amato highlights, such as the 24-save day that preserved an 8-7 win over Yale last year, or the 17-save performance against Duke that sparked the Terps to a 10-6 win in March.

He has seen or caught the outlet passes that have launched Maryland's transition offense. And he has heard Amato, barking instructions to his defense or playfully taunting his offensive teammates in practice, as they try to get a shot past no. 31.

"Niko likes to call himself Tom Brady, because he feels like he's one of the best passers on the team with one of the best sticks," Ehrhardt said. "He always brings energy and enthusiasm to the locker room. He's a jokester off the field, but when he steps in there, he's a huge competitor who means business. It's been a treat having him in the goal all of this time."

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