While No. 3 Maryland’s midfield grabbed the headlines in Saturday’s 12-10 upset of top-ranked Loyola at Ridley Athletic Complex in Baltimore, a quieter – and just as effective – display was showcased by Niko Amato.
The redshirt junior goalkeeper outdueled junior Jack Runkel, finishing with a game-best 13 saves to help propel the Terps to a 3-0 start. While he was six stops short of his career high set against Duke on March 5, 2011, Amato did register the 13th double-digit save game of his career.
It was a quite a reversal from last year’s NCAA tournament final when Amato made just eight saves and surrendered nine goals in a 9-3 setback that gave the Greyhounds their first Division I national title. But Amato insisted that his performance Saturday was unrelated to that showing back in May.
“We try not to think about last year’s championship game,” he said. “We knew coming in today that nothing could really change anything that happened last year. This is a whole new season. We all respect Loyola’s shooters. Those guys have a ton of talent, especially in transition. It was just a really fun game.”
In three games thus far, Amato has recorded a 6.62 goals-against average and a .630 save percentage – both of which career bests if the season ended today.
Amato isn’t known as a workout warrior and played most of last season with a few extra pounds on his 5-foot-8, 185-pound frame. But he appears a little slimmer this year, and coach John Tillman said Amato has assumed a leadership role as the anchor of the defense.
“He gets his guys in spots,” Tillman said. “Like any goalie, you hope for that evolution. And now being a guy in his third year, he’s very comfortable. He’s telling guys where to go, he’s getting them checked up. So it’s one thing to make the saves, but also he gets the ball out, he creates transition, he makes great decisions on the clears and then he’s getting guys organized. That’s what you really want from a first-team All American, and Niko’s a guy we wouldn’t trade for anybody.”
Amato made seven saves in the first half against the Greyhounds, including two of the eye-opening variety. He snatched a Justin Ward shot out of mid-air as the junior attackman curled around the right post and tried to go high.
Later in the first quarter, he stoned junior midfielder Kevin Ryan from the slot towards the end of a Maryland man-down situation. Senior long-stick midfielder Jesse Bernhardt eventually corralled the loose ball and sent an outlet pass to senior short-stick defensive midfielder Landon Carr, who ignited a four-on-three fast break and sent one past Runkel with 3.4 seconds left.
Amato credited the defensive plan crafted by first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Conry for putting the defenders in position to force low-percentage opportunities, and Loyola coach Charley Toomey noticed the same thing.
“They slid and recovered well,” Toomey said. “They were fast to slide when we got a step on one of their guys. They were quick to slide out of the inside. They were making us make two or three passes to get a good look at Niko and we felt like once we did get that look, he was right there to make the stop. … It was a little frustrating because we felt like we got some good looks on Niko and when we did, he bailed them out.”
*Saturday’s matchup pitted two of the country’s best long-stick midfielders in Terps senior Jesse Bernhardt and Greyhounds senior Scott Ratliff. Bernhardt demonstrated why he may be ahead of Ratliff at this moment. Bernhardt recorded game highs in both ground balls (10) and caused turnovers (four) and chipped in an assist. Ratliff finished with six ground balls, one caused turnover and one goal, but Bernhardt terrorized Loyola’s midfielders with his quick stick and his imposing physicality. “That’s Jesse,” Tillman said. “I think we’re a little spoiled because we see it every day. He’s got great raw ability, but I think with the effort he puts forth every day, his approach, his attention to detail, his motor, he just works so hard. That’s just Jesse. It’s funny. I don’t think we take him for granted, but sometimes when he’s out there, you see him make plays, and you’re like, ‘Good God, I can’t imagine what next year is going to be like without him.’ He does so much for us.”
*Junior attackman Justin Ward didn’t have the kind of impact many were expecting. The Greyhounds’ leading scorer posted one goal and one assist, but his score in the third quarter only helped the team crawl into a five-goal deficit and his assist came on Loyola’s final goal with 23 seconds remaining. Some of the credit should go to Maryland junior defenseman Michael Ehrhardt, who did a solid job of shadowing Ward and preventing him from initiating from behind the cage. “I was just helping out any way possible,” said Ehrhardt, who added five ground balls and two caused turnovers. “I wasn’t really worried about the one-on-one matchup. We had a great job from all the other D guys, and they helped me out, and we had a successful day.”
*Runkel was pulled in favor of freshman Jimmy Joe Granito after senior midfielder Kevin Cooper’s goal with 10:57 left in the third quarter gave the Terps a 10-4 advantage. But Toomey said any blame should not be limited to Runkel. “I didn’t feel like we gave Jack a chance today,” he said. “It was disappointing. I think everything was right on the doorstep. But then once we got back into the third quarter, I just felt like we’ve got to do something to jump-start the defense. Sometimes that can rally a defense. When they know a young guy’s going in there, they tend to step up their game a little more. And Jimmy gave us great energy. … I thought he hung in there, especially for a young guy.” But Toomey said that Runkel would “absolutely” get the start against UMBC Tuesday night.
*The Greyhounds’ defensive midfield appears to sorely miss the presence of senior Josh Hawkins – an aspect that Towson and Maryland have attacked in Loyola’s last two games. But Toomey did not outline a timetable for Hawkins’ return from a team-imposed suspension for violating an unspecified rule. “Josh will be back when Josh is ready to be back,” Toomey said. “We’ve still got to determine some things as a university.”