March 17, 2014

Making Sense: Springfield's Unwavering Goalie Platoon

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Senior Connor Nash (above) currently has the leg up in Springfield's four-year competition for the starting spot, but classmate Rob Maher is always ready to go. "I've never had somebody push me like Rob has," Nash said. (Springfield Athletics)

Keith Bugbee likes to have an alpha goalie.

In his 31 years as head coach at Springfield, Bugbee can't recall many times when he has worked a platoon or had any questions about who was the man between the pipes. Sure, he's had to yank his share of goalies along the way, but it never upset the netminding hierarchy.

"I'd rather just have a starting goalie and I've had a clear No. 1 most of the time," he said.

Bugbee's comfortable goaltending philosophy was shattered four years ago.

It was in the fall of 2010 when Rob Maher and Connor Nash arrived at Springfield, sparking a yearly battle for the starting keeper position and forcing Bugbee to make more tough decisions than he wanted to.

"I have a bunch of assistant coaches and it was so close sometimes that I'd literally ask my assistant coaches who should be in goal tomorrow," Bugbee said of the competition between Maher and Nash. "It would end up being 50-50 and it ended up on me to make a decision. The practice before the game, I'd say, 'We just think you're the one today.'"

* * *

When Maher and Nash showed up at Springfield after successful New York prep careers – Maher out of John Jay H.S. in Katonah and Nash out Burnt Hills and it eponymous high school – they both thought they'd emerge as the top guy for the Pride.

"I started since my sophomore year in high school and I didn't think that there would be that many goalies coming in my freshman year, but we had six goalies. Yeah, six," Nash said, laughing. "So we were all battling it out."

"When I talked to coach Bugbee and the assistant coaches, they said I was one of their No. 1 choices but they did have other freshman coming in," Maher said. "So I did know that I'd have to compete for a spot, but I thought I'd be one of the top goalies, or at least be in the hunt for the starting position."

Maher and Nash separated themselves from the rest of the pack that first year, but not from themselves. Going against his best instincts, Bugbee went with a pure platoon in the first four games of the 2011 season with the two switching off between starting and relieving.

After those first four contests, Nash was awarded the starting spot, going 8-5 with decent numbers. A taller, rangier righty with more of an orthodox approach, Nash barely edged out Maher, a lefty who Bugbee describes as "a pure ball-stopper," using his thicker frame to parry shots with whatever body part is available.

Bugbee opened the competition again at the start of 2012, but still couldn't make up his mind. Through the first 10 games of the season, Maher and Nash switched off both by games and, in some cases, halves. After a 23-save performance against Amherst midway through the season, Maher finally locked down the position.

"I started playing very well as the season went," Maher said.

"He grabbed it by the reins that year," conceded Nash.

Maher went on to earn All-American honors with a 12-3 record, 5.65 goals against average and 65.1 save percentage. With the national honors to his credit, Maher entered last spring as the presumptive No. 1 and started 13 of the first 15 games of the season, going 6-6. In the regular season finale against Babson, Maher got the hook at halftime and Nash reemerged on the scene. Nash got the nod in both conference tourney games and in the NCAA tourney contest against Cabrini.

"Connor was the starting goalie in the NCAA game, but even in that game Rob came in the second half," said Bugbee.

This kind of rivalry can be both stressful for the goalies, who are always looking over their shoulder, and toxic for a relationship between teammates. For whatever reasons – perhaps via the personalities or maturity of those involved – the competition hasn't fazed Maher or Nash.

Actually, they appreciate what the other is capable of and use it as motivation.

"Nash and I are so close in skill and overall talent level that it's great, but you're also nervous because if you're having a bad game, you're thinking, 'Maybe I shouldn't be playing. Maybe the other guys should be playing,'" Maher said. "In practice, if Nash makes a big save, I'll try to make a big save the next time. It creates a really good battle and I think it made us both better. I've become a lot better since I came to Springfield."

"It really strengthened both of our personalities because it forced us to work really hard," added Nash. "I never worked this hard in high school. I've never had somebody push me like Rob has. We don't have anything against each other, by any means. We're both completely supportive of each other. I think it's just that drive that we both give each other makes us better every day."

The selflessness shown by the duo can be staggering at times.

"In practice, if Nash makes a big save, I'll try to make a big save the next time. It creates a really good battle and I think it made us both better. I've become a lot better since I came to Springfield," said Rob Maher of his competition with Connor Nash. (Springfield Athletics)

During the 2012 season when the pair was still in the midst of figuring out who was going to lock down the starting goalie spot, Maher got the start in the Amherst game. He made nine saves in the first half, giving the Pride a 4-2 lead over the Lord Jeffs – a team that had reached the national quarterfinals the year before. Nash sidled up to Bugbee and confirmed what the coach already knew: Maher had to stay in.

Maher turned away another 14 saves in the second half for a 23-stop performance and 9-6 win.

Skip to this season, and Maher is on the sideline watching Nash face Nazareth, ranked 10th in the nation at the time, on Feb. 22. Even though he's slated to start the second half, Maher approaches Bugbee and tells him to make the right choice and leave the starter in. Nash went on to make 10 more saves in the second half, giving Springfield an 11-10 win.

"I was so moved that Rob would take the initiative to come up to me and say, 'Leave Connor in,'" Bugbee said. "I think it motivated the team. That's Rob saying the team is way more important than me today."

* * *

Bugbee's not naïve.

When you coach for 31 years, you understand the danger areas. As well as Maher and Nash have handled the situation to this point, playing a secondary role can quickly transform into a combustible issue for goalies who have tasted success.

"I can see the disappointment in their face," Bugbee said. "I'm not blind to the fact that they want the job. But they always took it like men."

Since both Maher and Nash could make a compelling argument for the starting job heading into this season based on past accomplished, Bugbee leveled with them in December.

"I sat down with both of them before they went home for break and I said, 'Go home and work your tails off because I would really like to have a starting goalie this year. I want one of you guys to win it,'" Bugbee said. "They both looked at me, smiled and said, 'That's cool.' It's just their attitude. Every time I've thrown the gauntlet out there, it hasn't been a negative. I really admire them both."

"Coaches are really open-minded and I think that's what keeps us both motivated to come out and try our best every day," Nash said. "We can tell during practices who is going to get the nod. If one of us gets hot during the week of practice, we understand where the coaches are coming from."

"We compete with each other," Maher said. "We make jokes with each other. It's a very friendly competition, but it can get heated at practice. Once practice is over we're very good friends and we hang out with each other. You can definitely tell that we're good friends off the field. I find it very fun, though. If I didn't have anyone to push me I'm not sure how good I would have been. My sophomore year was mostly because Nash was always there on my heels making sure I played well."

In the wake of Nash's game against Nazareth, he is the guy right now. It was a coin-flip, as Bugbee describes it, up to that point, but the issue is settled for now. But it's a long season, and things can change. Fortunately for the Pride, they have the strongest goalie corps in the country.

"With all the years I've been doing this, I've never been more impressed," Bugbee said. "They're both seniors and they both want the spot and finish up on top. Connor is on top right now, but Rob's right there. He works his tail off every day and we watch him every day. If Connor falters a little bit, we have no problem bringing him in."

And so it goes for Springfield's unwavering platoon.

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