Ryan Kern has been diagnosed with chip fractures in his thumbs on two occasions. He has also suffered a concussion and recently absorbed so many shots at a Navy men’s lacrosse practice that he walked out of the team’s medical office with a bag of ice on each shoulder.
“I can tell you that after certain practices, you’re definitely in the training room for a lot longer,” the sophomore goalkeeper said.
As Kern can attest, playing goalie at the Division I level can be a painful proposition. By the very nature of the position, a goalkeeper is tasked with standing between the net and an opponent capable of launching a shot that might tick up to triple digits on a radar gun. As Maryland coach John Tillman remarked, “Instinctively, you’re doing what most of us wouldn’t do.”
And then there’s the mental aspect of the job. Goalies spend a majority of their time reviewing film of their performances in previous games and practices, pointing out flaws and devising fixes for those flaws. Then they watch video of upcoming opponents in an attempt to pick out shooters’ tendencies and techniques.
“It’s never been harder than it is right now,” ESPN analyst and former Johns Hopkins goalkeeper Quint Kessenich said of playing the position, “and there’s a laundry list of factors why.”
The challenges appear to have affected the quality of play in the net. As recently as 2011, there were 10 goalies named to the All-America first, second, third and honorable mention teams. In 2016, there were only five, the fewest since five in 1997, and only six last spring.
While the number of All-America goalkeepers might be traced to the vagaries of coaches’ voting, Jacksonville coach John Galloway acknowledged that save percentages have dropped in recent years.
“Nowadays, if you’re a goalie and you’re saving 53 to 55 percent, that’s pretty good,” said Galloway, a former Syracuse goalie. “But back in the day and even when I was playing, you needed to be around 60 percent to be considered [for All-America honors]. I think those numbers from the coaches’ standpoint haven’t changed, but from the game’s standpoint, if you’re in the 50s, you’re feeling pretty good about your goalie.”
Perhaps the most significant factor affecting goalkeepers is the improvement in technology. Balls are more difficult to dislodge from the current crop of sticks, which means attackmen, midfielders and even defensemen have more chances to test goalies. And the sticks are part of the arsenal for a budding generation of shooters who are bigger, stronger and faster.
“Goalie is a challenging position to begin with, and nowadays given the technology of the sticks and the size and strength of some of these guys and the amount of time that people are putting into shooting, I do think it makes it more challenging,” Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said.
The same film that goalies use to study opponents is available for shooters to dissect goalkeepers. And few teams have the resources to employ coaches who can help develop young prospects. Only 13 Division I programs have goalie coaches on staff and six of them are volunteer assistants because staffs are generally limited to a head coach and coordinators on offense and defense.
“I think that coaching of the goalie position at the youth, high school and college levels is overall poor,” said Kessenich, who runs his own goalie camp. “Because of the NCAA limitations on the size of a coaching staff, there are so many college goalies don’t have somebody who knows the position working with them every day, and that shows up.”
What all coaches seek in a goalkeeper is someone who can corral a shot out of midair, throw an outlet pass to start some transition offense, and communicate to his defense which alignments or strategies to use. In some circles, it’s akin to trying to find a four-leaf clover.
“Because you’re playing teams that have multiple types of offenses — inverts, up-tempo, different sets — I think what’s happening now is goalies are expected to get their defenses into different alignments and make sure that they’re organizing the defense,” said Loyola Maryland coach Charley Toomey, who played the position for the Greyhounds.
Gone are the days of coaches identifying the biggest and widest players on their teams as goalies. Hand-eye coordination, lateral quickness to move from post to post, and stick-handling skills are prized commodities among budding candidates.
And the players take steps to refine those qualities. To stay light on his feet, Maryland redshirt senior Dan Morris opts for a low-carb, high-protein diet and uses an app on his phone to chart his caloric intake.
Goalkeepers frequently exercise the muscles in their quads and backs for when they have to stay in a slightly crouched position for extended periods of time. And nothing is better for staying fit mentally than getting enough sleep before games.
Morris, who backstopped the Terps to their first national championship in 42 years, said playing goalie requires a certain disposition.
“The next-play mentality is a lot more difficult for goalies because if you screw up and miss a shot as an attackman, nothing really comes of it and people forget about it pretty quickly,” he said. “But if you get scored on as a goalie, that mistake is up on the scoreboard for the rest of the game. So I think that aspect is pretty hard, and you’ve got to be mentally tough. You’ve got to work on your visualization and stay positive.”
Loyola Maryland junior Jacob Stover (McDonogh) said friends who are not familiar with lacrosse question why he would volunteer to try to block a shot with little protective padding.
“I like being able to have a major impact on the field,” he said matter-of-factly. “If he’s going to step in from 10 yards, he better score because I’m going to do everything I possibly can to make a save. So for me, I want to make sure I’m giving my best effort for my team every single time I step into that cage.”
With all the obstacles littering the paths of goalkeepers, does Kern have any second thoughts about his choice in athletic career?
“I don’t have any regrets,” he said. “I don’t think I would be in the position I’m in if I played a different position. I don’t think I would be as good of a lacrosse player if I played midfielder or defense. I’m happy where I ended up.”