January 30, 2012

Haverford's Banno Redefining the 'Big Goalie'

by Jac Coyne | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

At 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, it's easy to stereotype Haverford goalie Joe Banno. But be cautious. "That's what makes him unique: he's more than just the big guy you throw in net," said Black Squirrel head coach Colin Bathory. "He's a big guy in net, but can play the position like the elite goalies do."
© Larry Drexler

Put the big kid in net.

It's an edict heard on youth fields all over the country. While it may seem cruel at first, it's not a punitive decision; just a geometrical one. With most youngsters showing a rudimentary ability to catch and shoot the ball, finding someone with the skills to stop the ball with his stick is nearly impossible. So why not utilize the kid who has the best chance of the ball hitting him by his sheer mass?

As Joe Banno started his career on the youth fields of Monroe, Conn., opponents probably figured he was a casualty of the Big Man Syndrome. Towering over his classmates, Banno certainly stood out, but what others didn't know is he wanted to be the last line of defense.

"The team I started on didn't have a goalie so I volunteered, and I've been in the net ever since," Banno said. "I just kind of stepped in the net and it has been pretty interesting. Starting out in the smaller leagues, it's a little easier to get into it. The shots are a lot slower. It wasn't this crazy, shell-shocked experience. I remember having a lot of fun."

Banno continued his prep career at Notre Dame High School (Fairfield, Conn.) and he improved every year. Much of it was through tireless technical training, but he learned just as much from the barrage of shots he saw every game. The Lancers weren't a real strong team, which meant plenty of action for Banno. The shots also kept coming because of that instinctive reaction of many lacrosse players: big goalie means bad goalie.

"People see the big guy in the net and they think it's someone to just plug up the space," Banno said. "I definitely try to play a little more heady than that. I definitely take a few people by surprise, at least at the start. In high school my team wasn't great, so I would get 50 shots a game. It was just people taking shots on me and it was great experience for college."

As large as Banno's improvement was at Notre Dame, his size expanded, as well. When he graduated, he was a 6-foot-4, 265-pound stopper with the quickness and instincts of a goalie half his size.

"He's a pretty cerebral guy," said Haverford head coach Colin Bathory, who was an assistant coach for the Black Squirrels while recruiting Banno. "He sees shooting angles. He knows where some players are more likely to shoot than others, and he positions himself to get his stick ready for saves in those spots. He can also make the in-tight, low-to-high stick-fake saves. He's got the reactions, as well. That's what makes him unique: he's more than just the big guy you throw in net. He's a big guy in net, but can play the position like the elite goalies do."

The Haverford staff was thrilled with Banno in the fold, making him the starting goalie as the Squirrels entered the 2009 season ranked No. 12 in the country. Unfortunately, Haverford opened the season against No. 5 Cabrini on the road.

"It was just a bad game all around," Banno said. "I got peppered. It was definitely an eye-opener."

The Cavaliers scored the first 11 goals of the game and doubled up the Squirrels in shots on their way to a 15-3 whitewash. Banno finished with 17 saves, but quickly understood that he needed to get better.

"That was his welcome-to-the-NCAA game as much as anything," Bathory said. "I think we went on a five-game winning streak after that, and then finished the season only losing three games."

Cabrini's tactic of deluging Banno with shots is one of the few times that ploy has actually worked. The rest of the Squirrels' opponents that year probably saw that tape and let loose, but they know better now. Even high-powered Salisbury, which ended Haverford's season in 2009, needed a quarter to realize it was not dealing with a big stiff between the pipes.

"It took a little time for Salisbury to get used to him," Bathory said. "They were accustomed to getting a lot of those skip lanes, wing-to-wing passes and shots on the backside. Joe's feet are very good. He steps across the cage very deftly. They had to force themselves to change some of their plan as they got used to where the shooting angles were on the field against a goalie like Joe."

Haverford's schedule remains mostly static from year to year. Every team that saw Banno last year in the regular season will once again get to stare down the Black Squirrels' super-sized goalie. They know that peppering the big kid with shots doesn't work; it'll take a little finesse to break him down. As such, Banno is tasked with a different challenge.

Bathory said Banno has been loud since the day he showed up at Haverford, but he hasn't always communicated well. With opposing team understanding what it takes to solve Banno, it's up to the goalie to maintain a synergy with the defense in front of him.

"I've found that communication is the key to defense, and I've always tried my best," Banno said. "My freshman year, I was nervous, so I was loud, but may not have been saying the right things. After last year, with two years in the system, it just kind of clicked. I think I'm on the top of my communication game, which I think will bode well for us in the coming months."

"The communication improved, and I think his clearing game is getting better, too," Bathory said. "He works the hardest on his footwork and making sure that perceived weaknesses are no longer those. He has a good work ethic and he's not just a lazy guy who puts on pounds."

That will always be the stereotype of the plus-sized goalie, but if Banno can lead Haverford back to the NCAA tournament, he'll be saddled with just one label: big time.

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