The hard-lining shot whizzes low toward the corner of the net, and Towson State goalkeeper Brian Whalen instinctively deflects with a kick save.
Others might have opted for a stick save. Others might not have stopped it at all.
Whalen, a four-year starter, will be in goal today when the Tigers (8-4) play Loyola (7-5) in the first round of the NCAA tournament at noon at Navy. In the second game of the doubleheader, Johns Hopkins (6-5) plays Notre Dame (9-3).
Whalen, who grew up in Holmes, N.Y., laced up a pair of ice skates at the age of 5, eight years before he picked up a lacrosse stick. And when he tried out for attack on his high school lacrosse team, coaches quickly moved the heralded hockey goalkeeper back to the net.
He has been learning the position ever since -- by himself, without the benefit of a goalkeeping coach. He doesn't recommend it to aspiring young keepers.
"When I work at lacrosse camps, I tell them: 'If you want to learn the right way, don't watch me,' " said Whalen, who ranks fourth on Towson State's all-time saves list with 528. "My style is so much different from what you're supposed to do because I make a lot of saves with my legs and feet and arms."
Statistics don't really prove Whalen's effectiveness or his importance to Towson State. He's not among the nation's leaders in save percentage (.535) and is not widely considered to be an All-America candidate.
Then listen to Towson State coach Carl Runk.
"When he's on, our defense is outstanding," Runk said. "They rally around him and really respond to him. We have some good, solid, average defensemen. For us to be a success, it all starts there with him."
Whalen is just as unorthodox out of uniform. He enjoys as little activity as possible, lounging around his place when there's no practice. And no one can budge him from the television screen when the NHL playoffs are on.
It's also hard to pin down his off-the-cuff personality. Even defenseman and longtime friend Fred Cindrich had difficulty describing Whalen.
"Let's say he's very enthusiastic," said Cindrich, who grew up a half-hour from Whalen. "There are other words I could say, but they'll seem insulting. I guess you can say he has a lot of craze."
That craze usually inspires his teammates, as he makes acrobatic, clutch saves. Other times it hasn't.
Last year after a one-goal loss to Maryland, Whalen said about his teammates, "I've never seen a bunch of pansies so afraid of picking up a ground ball out there."
"I didn't get anything from anybody on what I said," said Whalen, a senior captain. "We were supposed to be a great team that year and we didn't live up to that. The team realized that. When you're right, no one is on your back."
The Tigers always seem to ride Whalen's back in tight games. He's the main reason the Tigers are 3-1 in their past four games decided by three goals or fewer.
But before the game, Whalen focuses best away from the team. During the national anthem, he usually stands off to the side where no one can talk to him. When the game starts, Whalen energetically patrols the goal, slapping away point-blank shots and firing up his teammates.
"I think I've made it clear how important a goalie is," said Maryland coach Dick Edell, who has seen Whalen make 39 saves against his Terps in the past two meetings. "He can cover up so many mistakes and can provide an emotional boost. Brian is that type of player.
"He doesn't play with a classic style, but I think that has helped him. Shooters expect him to do the traditional thing. It's not a style I would teach, but he's a darned great goalkeeper."
Impenetrable might be a better adjective for Whalen in his past six games. He has surrendered 10 or more goals only once in that span and averaged 6 1/2 goals allowed.
"What comes out in the playoffs is the team with a hot goaltender has a great shot to go a long way," Whalen said. "Look at the NHL -- the team with the hottest goalkeeper is going to win. In lacrosse, your guys are going to score 10-12 goals a game. If you want to win, you have to hold the other team to under 10 goals. It all starts with defense."
Harvard vs. Hofstra
Army vs. Syracuse
(at Naval Academy)
Loyola vs. Towson, noon
N. Dame vs. Hopkins, 3 p.m.
Pub Date: 5/12/96