Pat McGinnis understands the skeptics who doubted him.
When a goalkeeper rides the bench for two seasons, then unexpectedly gets tossed into the cage to play the game's most pivotal position, the player must be viewed as a weak link, right?
Nine games into a magical junior year, McGinnis has silenced those perceptions as surely as he has stopped shot after shot for the Maryland Terrapins.
The Terps will invade Johns Hopkins tonight to renew one of lacrosse's more spirited rivalries, and Maryland will bring a decent offense, its trademark grinding defense, and the man who has evolved from stranger to star over the past two months.
Who would have thought that, in a game that includes Brian Carcaterra, Hopkins' two-time All-America goalie, people would be buzzing about the other guy guarding the net?
Meet McGinnis, suddenly a candidate for Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, suddenly one of the nation's best examples of a brick wall and a suddenly possible All-America choice. Once a backup whose highlights came on the obscure stage of the practice field, McGinnis ranks second in the country in save percentage (.681) and fourth in goals-against average (6.98).
Believe it. Without McGinnis, Maryland would not have four one-goal victories to hang on its 7-2 season. Without him, the Terps would not feel as confident about beating the Blue Jays (4-3), whose offense is gradually recovering after a 1-3 start.
"[McGinnis] was a huge question mark, our No. 1 question mark," Maryland coach Dick Edell said. "Now he's an answer. He's been our rock."
McGinnis, a graduate of Loyola High School, has smiled at the improbability of it all.
Last summer, he had just concluded his second season backing up Kevin Healy and was working as a caddy near his Ellicott City home. With Healy scheduled to return, the Terps had planned to red-shirt McGinnis in 2000, thus preserving two seasons of eligibility for him as the next starter.
Then, Healy surprised Edell by deciding to forgo his final season to pursue a career in finance on Wall Street. And just like that, the plans changed. McGinnis, who had played a total of 70 minutes as a sophomore after far less mop-up duty as a freshman, had become the man. Let the doubting begin.
"Every preseason magazine had me as a question mark. I don't blame the skeptics at all for being skeptical," McGinnis said. "I had only gotten some leftovers. I hadn't really been tested. My biggest highlight as a freshman was playing two minutes in the [national] championship game.
"But [the skeptics] also motivated me. Now I knew I was going to get a chance."
One hundred twenty-eight saves later, the people who seem least surprised by McGinnis' ascendance are the defensemen whom he has worked behind this spring. Seniors like Casey Connor and Jason Carrier had seen enough of the McGinnis in practice to believe in him.
Carrier loves the style of the team's last line of defense, starting with the economical way McGinnis, 6 feet 3, 192 pounds, uses his broad frame to cut off shooting angles and take up space in the cage.
"He plays unbelievable position. It's hard to teach that," Carrier said of McGinnis. "A lot of times, goalies get out of position, and they have to make those acrobatic, out-of-control saves. That doesn't happen with Pat. He plays like a hockey goalie. His feet and his hands are always in the right place."
McGinnis prefers to let the stick rest across his body, parallel to the ground. Typically, goalies hold the stick upright. He said his method helps him react equally quickly to shots that fly high or low. And watch McGinnis fool shooters, leaving perceived holes in the cage, only to pounce on the shot as he eliminates the opening.
"I'm a baiter, a cheater," McGinnis said. "I like to play the angles, cheat away from where [the opponent] thinks the shot should go. Our defense does a good job of shutting off the middle by sliding early and forcing passes back out to the wing. We usually give up the shots we like to give up."
McGinnis also is not shy about using his body to made saves. Just ask the Virginia Cavaliers, who outclassed the Terrapins two weeks ago, 11-6, but met the wall in McGinnis. During a 27-save effort that kept the game deceptively respectable, McGinnis took countless point-blank shots off his helmet, chest, legs, you name it.
"You watch [McGinnis] on tape, and you think you can score on him," said Navy coach Richie Meade, whose Midshipmen dropped a 6-5 decision last week in College Park, where McGinnis made 10 saves. "I'm watching the Virginia tape thinking they are hitting him a lot. But he was letting them hit him."
"Pat was facing three-on-ones [fast breaks] and making saves," defenseman Casey Connor said. "Our defense was not very good that night. I was exhausted, but Pat just kept going. I don't know if you're going to find many goalies as normal as him, but Pat does like getting hit with the ball."
"I wouldn't be caught dead standing in front of the cage," Carrier added. "We had some great shooters a few years ago who would dent his helmet with 90-mile-an-hour shots every day in practice."
McGinnis does not worry about the welts and bruises. Ever since, as a player in the Catonsville recreation league, he realized he was not suited for the midfield, he has learned to love life in the cage.
"I was a midfielder until everyone around me got fast and started scooting right past me. I said I guess I'll try it back there [in goal]," he said.
"You might get hit, and it might hurt like hell, but you've made a save and the ball is going the other way and everyone around you appreciates it. Every time you get hit, it was worth it."