As a goalkeeper at the Naval Academy, RJ Wickham plays in the shadow of a long line of standout predecessors, including Dennis Wedekind, Mickey Jarboe and Matt Russell, all of whom were named the nation's top goalie during their tenure.
Now Wickham plays under the watchful eye of one of those former players as Jarboe is a volunteer assistant coach in charge of the Midshipmen goalkeepers.
"It's been great working with him," Wickham said of Jarboe. "Mickey, [junior Nolan] Hickey, [sophomore] Paul Zimmerman and I go out, and most days, he's out there even though he's a volunteer. He loves coming out and helping us. We're pretty close. We joke around together, but at the same time, we're real serious about how we're practicing our technique and trying to get better every day."
Added Jarboe, who is just one of 13 players to win the Ensign C. Markland Kelly Jr. Award, which is given to the country's top goalie, on multiple occasions: "The first time I met him as the coach, he was more than receptive to coaching, and it's just been an awesome experience so far."
The interaction between Wickham and Jarboe already appears to be paying dividends. The senior made a season-high 12 saves in Saturday's 9-8 loss to No. 4 North Carolina, who might have scored more if not for Wickham.
ESPN analyst and former Syracuse midfielder Paul Carcaterra said Jarboe's presence should prove beneficial for Wickham.
"[H]aving someone like Mickey at RJ's disposal is monumental because he can lean on Mickey and discuss not just the technical approach to playing goaltender, but also the mental approach and that's so big, too," Carcaterra said. "You have to be a leader, you have to be mentally tough, you kind of have to be the guy out there that is taking charge and be another coach on the field, and Mickey was able to do that. During his days at Navy, you weren't scoring more than 10 goals against Mickey. So I think that's huge for Navy."
The relationship between Wickham and Jarboe began four years ago when associate sports information director Stacie Michaud informed Jarboe of a first-year player who became the first freshman goalkeeper to start since 1997 — when Jarboe started all 12 games during his rookie campaign.
When former Stony Brook coach Rick Sowell was selected in June to succeed Richie Meade as the program's eighth head coach, Sowell successfully persuaded Jarboe — who spent almost ten years serving in the Navy as a helicopter playing while also playing professional lacrosse — to join the staff working with the goalies. Jarbone, a Towson native, lives in Annapolis and works for SpineWave, a company that makes medical devices for the treatment of spinal disorders.
Jarboe has worked with Wickham on moving his hands closer together on his goalie stick and streamlining his movements to protect his off side, which is the left side of the net. But Jarboe said he took particular pains not to make any drastic overhauls with Wickham's game.
"He's a very athletic and explosive goalie, and I just want to make sure that he remains that way," Jarboe said. "I don't really want to change too much with him because when he's on, he's on. So there wasn't too much that I really worked on. We just had to fine-tune the already good and explosive technique that he had."
Wickham said the tweaks the two have made are working.
"I've definitely seen a big improvement in how my hands are when I'm making a save and how they're out and their position on my stick, which helps me move my stick around, especially to that off-stick side," he said. "So it's helped a lot."
When Jarboe speaks, Wickham, Hickey and Zimmerman — who call themselves "The Goalie Squadron" — pay attention. Of course, it helps when the speaker is the program's career leader in saves (he made 215 stops in 1999 alone.)
"I think he's one of the best goalies to ever live, in my opinion," Wickham said. "… We all listen to him very closely. It's really cool to have a guy who knows what he's talking about and who's played the position so well. Every day, we want to go out and get that practice with him."
The hope is that Jarboe can help Wickham revert back to 2010, when he registered an 8.55 goals-against average and a .593 save percentage in 15 starts. That version — not last year's goalie who posted a 9.26 goals-against average and a .491 save percentage — will be necessary if the Midshipmen intend to reclaim their supremacy in the Patriot League, Carcaterra said.
"You never want to put too much pressure on your goaltender, but if Navy's going to have a successful season, R.J.'s going to need to produce those sophomore numbers because he's gong to have to stand on his head and be the difference maker rather than just playing solid goaltending," Carcaterra said. "He'll have to emerge as an elite goaltender, and I'm not too sure if this team right now is going to give him the opportunity to do that."
Wickham's performance against the Tar Heels Saturday gave birth to some optimism that the 2010 version has returned. However, that's not the approach that Wickham is taking.
"I feel like the whole team played together and we fed off of each other," he said. "That's huge for me, when I can get pumped up on a play that [junior midfielder] Bryce Dabbs made or get pumped up off a play that our close defenseman made. I wouldn't say it's the RJ of old though. I've never really changed. I just had a little bit of a better game."