Niko Amato made most of starting shot with Bayhawks

Bill Wagner
Contact Reporterbwagner@capgaznews.com

Niko Amato enjoyed a sensational collegiate career at the University of Maryland. The Pennsylvania native was a four-year starter in the goal and received a slew of accolades along the way.

Amato became the first netminder named All-Atlantic Coast Conference four times and was an All-American selection on three occasions. As a senior in 2014, the 5-foot-8, 185-pounder was chosen first team All-American and received the prestigious C. Markland Kelly Award as the best goaltender in Division I.

Needless to say, it was a shock to the system when Amato moved on to Major League Lacrosse and suddenly became a benchwarmer. After being drafted by the Florida Launch in 2014, Amato appeared in just one game as a rookie and struggled in a loss to the New York Lizards.

Florida traded Amato to the Chesapeake Bayhawks the following season and he wound up playing in just five games in 2015 and 2016 while backing up Tyler Fiorito, Kip Turner and Brian Phipps.

"My first three seasons were pretty rough mentally. It's tough to go from being a starter in college and being told how good you are to not even playing at all," Amato admitted. "It's a real wake-up call to reach the next level and realize that you have to start at the bottom and work your way out. It was definitely a humbling experience."

However, Amato did not get discouraged and simply responded by working harder. A proven pedigree that began with being named a US Lacrosse All-American twice at LaSalle College High gave the youngster confidence he could eventually succeed in the professional ranks.

"I knew it wasn't anything major. I've been playing the position since sixth grade and know what it takes to get the job done. I just had to stay humble and trust the process," Amato said. "I think the biggest thing was learning the routine of the league. There's not a lot of practice time and you don't have coach there to hold your hand. I had to learn how to prepare on my own."

Amato also realized he needed to improve his athleticism in order to make impactful plays outside the cage. Major League Lacrosse players are bigger, stronger and faster so a goaltender that comes out of the crease must be able to handle himself.

A wise coach once said that luck is when preparation meets opportunity, which has pretty much been the case with Amato this season. When Phipps struggled midway through the season, Chesapeake head coach Brian Reese turned to Amato and he has responded.

"What I love about Niko is that he always prepared like he was the starter. When Niko finally got the chance to play, he took advantage of it," Reese said. "Niko is a confident kid who believes in his ability. He feels strongly that he can be one of the best goalies in league."

Reese started off by having the two goalies split halves, a strategy that lasted one game. Amato came off the bench to make 12 saves in the second half against Florida on July 15 and the following weekend became the full-time starter.

Amato was outstanding against Atlanta on July 22, registering a career-high 19 saves to anchor a 13-12 road victory. The fourth-year professional remained hot last Thursday at Denver, making 18 saves in a 12-11 overtime loss that knocked the Bayhawks out of the playoffs.

"I was just waiting to get my shot. I always felt if I got more extensive time I could prove myself," Amato said. "I still don't consider myself the starter. This is a pro sport so you have to go out and perform every game. I'm just trying to take it week by week and have as much fun as possible playing the game."

Nobody has been more supportive of Amato than Phipps, who is usually the first player to greet the goalie when he comes off the field following each quarter. Phipps is the head coach of boys' lacrosse at Archbishop Spalding and understands the dynamics of changing goalies.

"Brian is a great teammate who gets it. He is all about winning and doing whatever is best for the Bayhawks," Reese said. "There were games when I planned to use Brian in the second half and he told me to keep Niko in the game because he was playing well. I'm not sure the situation would have worked out so well if Brian and Niko didn't have such a good relationship."

Phipps was the starting goalie at Maryland as a senior in 2010 when Amato redshirted. Phipps then served as a graduate assistant coach at his alma mater and mentored Amato. Phipps is a two-time All-Star in Major League Lacrosse and was one of four goalies recently named to the United States National Team.

"Brian coached me for two years at Maryland and taught me a lot about how to play the position at the college level. He has also helped me out a lot with the Bayhawks," Amato said. "Brian Phipps has always been nothing but great to me. This could be an awkward situation because Brian and I are both competitors that want to play. I'm grateful that Brian has gone out of his way to make me comfortable and I really appreciate that."

Chesapeake general manager Dave Cottle was the head coach at Maryland when Amato was a three-time All-American and called him a "fiery competitor."

"I would describe Niko as a pit bull. He never gives in and just keeps coming back for me. He has a total belief in himself," Cottle said.

Amato has followed in the footsteps of Cottle and Phipps by becoming a coach. He spent two seasons as an assistant at Chestnut Hill, a Division II program in Philadelphia led by long-time mentor Brian Dougherty. On July 26, Amato was named head men's lacrosse coach at Immaculata University, where he will also work as manager of intramurals.

"This is an awesome opportunity and I can't wait to get going," said Amato, whose first day on the job was Monday. "My goal was to become a head coach and everything seemed to fit perfectly with this situation. Immaculata is dedicated to improving the program and I'm going to do everything I can to make that happen. I always aim to build something strong with whatever I do."

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