By Edward Lee, The Baltimore Sun
7:28 PM EDT, May 22, 2014
There's a long list of goalies who have played for the Maryland men's lacrosse team without winning the sport's ultimate prize.
Niko Amato doesn't want that list to grow this weekend.
Amato is only the second starting goalkeeper in program history to guide his team to three Final Fours in four years. But Jake Reed is the only one to have been on national championship teams (1973 and 1975), and if Amato and the Terps don't end the school's title drought, Amato will join a group that includes Brian Dougherty, Kevin O'Leary and Brian Phipps.
"There's a lot of great goalies that have come through that program and have come up short," ESPN analyst Mark Dixon said. "That being said, if [Amato] wins a national championship, I think he goes down as the best ever in Maryland's history just because he's a four-year starter who's been to three national championship games. I think that's going to be his legacy. I think he got first-team All American [honors] with [Saturday's] win over [Bryant sophomore] Gunnar Waldt in the quarterfinals, but I'm sure Amato would rather have a national championship trophy for the university over those individual accolades."
Amato and seventh-seeded Maryland (13-3) will take another step toward that goal in Saturday's NCAA tournament semifinal at M&T Bank Stadium when they play sixth-seeded Notre Dame (11-5).
Amato reached the national final in 2011 and 2012, but the Terps lost to Virginia and Loyola Maryland, respectively. Those setbacks have stayed with him.
"It's definitely significant," Amato said of helping the program get to three national semifinals, "but the first two years were real disappointing not coming away with the national championship. Now I'm very happy to be here because it's the next step, but I understand that we need to take care of business on Saturday, and we can talk about Monday after that."
Amato, who has started all 66 games in his career, is the most experienced goalie left in the postseason and is the only one ranked in the top five in goals-against average (fourth at 7.23) and the top 10 in save percentage (eighth at .566). The first goalkeeper in Atlantic Coast Conference history to be named to the all-conference team four times, he will graduate in third place on the school's all-time saves list (he has 609).
Amato, however, is at a loss for words when asked about his legacy.
"I just feel like there's so much more work to be done this weekend," he said. "So it's really hard for me to speak on that right now."
But John Tillman, who became the Terps coach the same year that Amato became the starter, has no such hesitation.
"He's been a model of consistency," Tillman said. "He's played well in the big games. We've leaned on him a ton, and he's always risen to the occasion. I know that in my four years here, I can appreciate and don't take for granted what he has meant to our program. I've got to think he's one of the best goalies to play in the last 10 years in terms of consistency."
As the anchor of the defense, Amato lends his voice to organizing his teammates and pointing out opponents' moves. At times, those contributions have led to minor dust-ups with teammates, but senior long-stick midfielder Michael Ehrhardt said the players understand his intentions.
"We've kind of grown into it," Ehrhardt said. "We used to get a little chippy with each other, but that's just the nature of competitive people. He just gets us going, and if we're doing something wrong, we've got to acknowledge that and be men about it, and understand that we have to change what we're doing and fix our mistakes and get going. Everyone's big on that. Everyone will get on each other and make sure that we're doing the right thing."
Notre Dame joined Maryland and the rest of the ACC this season, and Fighting Irish coach Kevin Corrigan said Amato impressed him.
"He's terrific," Corrigan said. "He's calm, he throws great outlet passes, he's an emotional guy for them. But when I say calm, I say calm in that he doesn't get nervous in there, jumping around and doing things. He sits on his line and trusts himself, but he's an emotional leader for this team with the plays that he makes there and then he gets their transition going. He's the package as a goalie."
On Thursday, Amato was named a first-team All American and was joined by Ehrhardt and junior defenseman Goran Murray. But as nice as that honor is, Amato said, he won't be content until he can help the Terps capture their first NCAA title since 1975.
"My whole life, I've dreamed of being a national champion," he said. "That's something I think every kid dreams of from the first time they pick up a stick, and that's something I've always wanted. I've always wanted to be known as a guy who has won, as a guy who has competed for all of that stuff. So this is definitely one of my ultimate goals — for me and this team."
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