April 8, 2011

Oregon's Johnston Has Used a Sophomore Slight as Motivation

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

He was cut from Oregon at the start of his sophomore year, but Nick Johnston has returned to the Ducks, emerging as the best goalie in the MCLA.
© Molly Sanders

It's still awkward for Nick Johnston to talk about his sophomore year. The extended pauses in the University of Oregon goalie's normal speech pattern are elongated further when he thinks back to the start of the 2009 season.

Not surprising, really. It was during fall ball of his second year when the coaching staff moved the life-long netminder to long-stick middie, even though Johnston earned time in net as a freshman. It was not a fun transition, but it was over quickly.

A couple of weeks later, Johnston was cut from the team.

"I was really into lacrosse and had been playing the game for six years, so it was a big one for me," said Johnston. "I was hurt."

It wasn't long before the coaching staff that scorned him was asking him to return. Because one of the goalies ahead of Johnston quit to join the Ducks' football team and the other transferred to the University of Colorado, Oregon needed Johnston's services.

A lot of teenagers would have struggled to forgive such a blow to their ego, but not so for Johnston.

"It was an easy decision," he conceded. "I said, 'You know what? The team needs me.' I like the guys I play with, and they are good friends. But I definitely had a chip on my shoulder, and during sophomore for year, for sure."

Johnston went out and posted a 65.6 save percentage and an 11-7 record, helping the Ducks return to the MCLA national tournament after a one-year hiatus following Oregon's run to the national title game in 2007.

At the start of the 2010 season, Oregon welcomed back Joe Kerwin -- the architect of UO's finals appearance, who had taken a two-year gig as head coach at NCAA Division II Notre Dame de Namur. Kerwin had coached Johnston in a summer league prior to his senior year at Southridge High School in Beaverton, Ore., and had heard of the goalie's backstory at Oregon, but never broached the subject when he resumed coaching in Eugene.

"He never really talked about it with me," Kerwin said. "But he definitely plays with a little bit of emotion, so it kind of makes sense."

Combined with Kerwin's hands-off approach, Johnston has used his sophomore slight as a catalyst to become the best goalie in the MCLA.

Last year, behind Johnston's 63.2 save percentage, the Ducks again advanced to nationals, losing in the first round in overtime. He allowed double-digit goals in just three of the 15 games he played, including a 5-4 overtime loss to top-ranked Michigan in which he made 18 saves. Despite Oregon's 1-5 start to the 2011 campaign and its current 5-6 mark, Johnston again has only allowed double digits three times and managed to take Michigan to double overtime.

There were high expectations in Eugene this year with a lot of key pieces returning, so the underwhelming start is surprising. When trying to find a reason for the performance so far, Kerwin said Johnston is exempt.

"We've been able to count on him from game to game," Kerwin said. "This year, it's been other parts of our game that are not always consistent. Sometimes I feel like we let him down a little bit. He's always bringing it and we're not bringing it in all of the other areas."

"I'd say we're all building, including myself," said Johnston. "On a team level, we started out slow, but I really think we're finding our groove right now and that will affect how we play in the tournament. We have a big weekend coming up with Simon Fraser and Cal Poly, and that's where we have to make our step."

Kerwin, Johnston and the rest of the Ducks know this weekend's games in Portland are critical in determining how the season plays out. It starts Friday night with a PNCLL clash with Fraser that will determine who will have the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. A game with No. 7 Cal Poly follows on Sunday afternoon, which would be monumental for Oregon's at-large argument.

"We just have quality losses, and now we have to win," Johnston said.

"It's exciting now," added Kerwin. "We've been through a lot and weathered the storm. We're starting to come together."

If Oregon can pull off a pair of wins, they'll come together around Nick Johnston in the crease on Sunday afternoon. He's been there for the Ducks the past three seasons, so it's time for them to return the favor.

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