March 22, 2013

Weekender: King Still Answering Call for St. John's

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

After a fruitless first stint with St. John's, senior goalie Mike King was lured back to the program. Since his return, he has been one of the top goalies in the MCLA and a spark for the Johnnies when he comes out of the cage.

The call for Michael King to become the best goalie in MCLA Division II came on a Friday night.

With St. John's starting goalie lost for the season with a knee injury suffered the day before in practice, a couple of the seniors on the Johnnies gave King a call back in 2010 to see if he'd suit up for a road trip to Iowa State to play the Cyclones and No. 2 Grand Valley State down in Ames.

King had already given it a go around with the Johnnies earlier in the spring. Although he came to St. John's to play hockey and attend the school where is aunt and uncle were both professors, he was coaxed out to the lacrosse field in the preseason after he received an email from head coach Derek Daehn.

"He said, 'We know you played. Why aren't you coming to our fall ball stuff?' I said, 'Hey, I didn't know you existed," King said.

With starting goalie Stu Van Ess, who happened to be the top goalie on the hockey team ahead of King, otherwise occupied, King got an opportunity to play a couple of games. The first was against Wheaton in which the Johnnies rolled.

"Wheaton was ranked when we played them," King said. "I didn't know a lot about club lacrosse, but to beat a team that was ranked and we were up by 10 goals in the first half? If this is the way it's going to be, I'm never going to do anything, so what's the point of sitting on bench when you get 20-goal wins every game?"

When Van Ess, who was an MCLA All-American, returned to his accustomed spot, the writing was on the wall.

"It was probably a little bit about not knowing whether this was something that was going to change his life," Daehn said. "'Are these going to be buddies of mine for the rest of my life, or is this going to be a flash in the pan thing and I should focus on school and hockey. I think there was a crossroads of not knowing exactly what he wanted."

King decided to hang up his lacrosse stick.

And then the phone rang that night.

"They said, 'Hey, King, we need you," said King of his conversation with a couple of seniors. "I literally got a call on Friday night at 10 p.m. and I got on the bus with them at 7 a.m. the next morning."

With King in the net, the Johnnies shut out Iowa State and beat then-No. 2 Grand Valley State on a goal scored with 1.2 seconds left in the contest.

"It was one of the coolest athletic contests I've ever been a part of," King said. "I was like, 'This is more like it. This is a lot more like a sport than the lashing we were putting on other teams.' It was really unfortunate for Stu, but it was fortunate for me because it allowed me to become friends with the guys in the quickest way. If it hadn't been for that chance and getting that call on Friday night, I wouldn't still be great friends with those guys."

"After that game, you could just see, especially the seniors and juniors, the players saying, 'This kid is for real,'" Daehn said. "That was the moment where he was like, 'OK, I belong.' Getting in a big game and being someone everybody looks to when things break down, we have somebody solid in the goal who can save us."

Since that time, St. John's has gone 39-11, won a conference championship in 2011 and advanced to the national tournament every season. King has made every one of those games interesting. Not because of the numerous close scores, but due to the fact that he is not the type of goalie who stands in the crease waiting for the action to come to him. He's constantly flying out on ground balls and is often used as a one-man clear in the face of a hard ride.

It's a much different approach than that of a hockey goalie, who is tethered to the net for the most part. But King learned the importance of being active outside of the crease during his time at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Mo. With varying levels of skill among his teammates, King's high school coach told him he needed to be a factor all over the field.

"'You're athletic and you've got to help us out here,'" King remembered his coaching telling him. "'That's your job. Even when your hands aren't working and your eyes aren't moving — every goalie has an off day — you've got to help your team.' It made sense to me that way. I'd like to think I'm as conditioned as any midfielder. I like to be athletic."

The talent level is considerably higher at St. John's, which has traditionally been known for its superb defenders. Senior Steve Johnson, who has been a three-time first-team All-American for the Johnnies, is just the latest in that line. Still, King feels it's his duty to help them out whenever he can.

"If Steve Johnson or one of our defensemen is going into the corner and getting hacked for a ground ball that I could have gotten to two steps sooner, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense," King said. "Plus, possessions are key. A ground ball to me is as important as a save. It's always a constant mental game for me about when to take those chances and try to pick up something for our team and make a play. There is a risk-reward factor. Not everything always goes the right way, but it's a numbers game and I'm confident in our guys and want to give them a chance."

King's forays out of the net have caused Daehn to hold his breath on occasions. The coach is obviously worried about a bad turnover, but an injury to his star goalie would be a heavy blow to his team. Even with the increased angst level, Daehn is rarely disappointed.

"We had Davenport here two years ago and we played them Friday night and in the first quarter they had a pretty good ride on us," Daehn said. "We didn't quite get it. Mike's at midfield and had just made a pretty ridiculous move on a guy, and I'm yelling at him to move the ball and get it to the attack. He had a little bit of an angle to slip and he ended up getting by the defenseman and scoring. I was like, 'OK, all right.'"

Even though he wears a big bulls-eye when he is carrying the ball up the field, King has been surprisingly adept at avoiding big hits in the open field. He's always aware of his surroundings after learning a painful lesson during a high school practice when a defenseman — a player who would end up walking on at Missouri as a linebacker — caught him with his head down.

"I beat the attackmen and midfielders up the field, but I did not see the first slide and he crushed me," remembered King. "I had a late growth spurt and in high school I was maybe 5-foot-5, 140 pounds and he was already a full grown man. I think he had a full beard since he was seven years old. He just crushed me. I got right back up and tried to remember my home address, but that was pretty much the last time. The worst pains I've always had are from the howitzers from seven or eight yards."

There will be more field-length runs and howitzers for King over the next six days when St. John's runs a gauntlet of top teams. It starts Friday night with a game against No. 15 Grand Valley State followed by No. 5 Dayton on Saturday, No. 16 Indiana Tech on Monday and No. 13 Western Oregon on Wednesday. A blood rivalry game against top-ranked St. Thomas awaits soon after.

It's a run that won't be too unlike that one St. John's will have to make if it wants to achieve its ultimate goal of winning a national championship. And if all goes according to plan, King will receive a phone call from his teammates on a Friday night in May, asking him once again if he's ready to help them the next day.

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