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Want to know Tillman Johnson's secret? Care to learn what makes him the best lacrosse goalie in the country? Here's a hint: It's not a clean bill of mental health.

"Obviously, you've got to be a little bit crazy to play goalie," said Johnson, who grew up in Annapolis and graduated from St. Mary's. "You've got balls flying at you at 100 mph, and you have to be able to deal with a little pain. I'm not sure you want someone who's mentally stable."

Of course, as Picasso showed the world, one man's crazy is another man's art. And Johnson, a senior at the University of Virginia and Lacrosse magazine's preseason Player of the Year, certainly made goaltending look like art last year during the NCAA tournament, when his brilliant net play helped the Cavaliers beat Johns Hopkins in the national championship game.

It was so good, in fact, even the most seasoned, battle-tested coaches found themselves in awe of Johnson's performance. He made 18 saves in the semifinal win over Maryland and 14 in the championship game against Johns Hopkins, including three from in close that were so good, Johnson made ESPN's "Plays of the Week."

"He was just phenomenal," said Princeton coach Bill Tierney. "You just don't see a goalie play two games like that over a three-day period. If a goalie can play better than that, I wouldn't want to play against [him]."

"It just showed you everything a goalie means to a team," said Hofstra coach John Danowski. "For the last couple of years, we haven't seen a performance like that. It reinforced in our sport what the position can do for you."

Luckily for Princeton and Hofstra - and for the rest of the teams hoping to dethrone Virginia - there simply aren't many athletes like Johnson out there, especially this season. Rutgers and Dartmouth also return goalies with All-American potential in Greg Havalchak and Andrew Goldstein, but Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Loyola and Princeton, among others, all begin the year with major question marks in net. And if Johnson's performance proved anything last year, it's that a great keeper can make all the difference in the world.

"You can be a good team with a good goalie," said Dartmouth first-year coach Bill Wilson. "But if you want to be a great team, you have to have a great goalie and a great faceoff man. Would you rather have a great defense in front of a good goalie or a good defense in front of a great goalie? I'd take the great goalie any day. Goalies change the game."

So much so, in fact, that even though the season is already under way for some teams, plenty of coaches say (at least publically) they haven't picked a starter yet. No one wants to yank a struggling keeper after the third game. As a result, Tierney's still mulling over whether to go with Matt Larkin or Dave Law, and Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala says he hasn't decided between Jesse Schwartzman and Scott Smith.

Maryland has a three-way battle going, with Terps coach Dave Cottle trying to pick a starter among Tim McGinnis, Harry Alford and Teddy Murphy.

Tierney said he wouldn't hesitate to rotate his two goalies depending on which one is playing better, but most coaches say they're likely to pick a guy and stick with him. The reason? If you fracture a goalie's confidence, it's not that easy to repair.

"Goalie is a tough position," Pietramala said. "It's very important to instill confidence and not have him always looking over his shoulder."

The hard part, Cottle said, is predicting which player is going to dig in when things aren't going well.

"I've always said a goalie has to be like a salesperson who cold calls people all the time," Cottle said. "You need to have a short memory, because you get told no a lot more than you get told yes. A goalie that saves 65 percent of the shots is still getting scored on 35 percent of the time. So if they make a mistake, you have to know they're going to come back and make a great play on the next one."

That trait has always been one of Johnson's strengths, even from the time he first picked up a stick and stood in between the pipes as a 7-year-old.

"It puts so much pressure on you, because you can change the game so much," Johnson said. "But even when I was a little kid, I loved it. I loved knowing that I could be the difference."

Johnson's greatness hasn't come without a cost. He's broken both of his thumbs and torn ligaments in each thumb, and he's had more shoulder bruises and leg welts than he can even begin to remember.

"You have to be able to take that pain, though," Johnson said. "At least you know you've stopped them from scoring. The ones that feel a lot worse are the ones that hit you and then they still go in the goal. Those hurt the most."

Courage doesn't do you much good, however, if you can't react to the ball. Johnson's coach, Dom Starsia, said he's never been around a goalie who has as much fast-twitch muscle reaction.

"I don't know what it is he eats," Starsia said. "But it would be hard to [find] someone with better reflexes. I don't know if he's a great athlete, but he's definitely got great hand-eye coordination."

Not everyone is born with Johnson's quickness, however, which is why Cottle says his first priority in picking a goalie is finding a good communicator.

"There's a lot more to it than just stopping the ball," Cottle said. "You need someone who is intelligent, someone who's a good leader, and someone who uses that leadership to communicate and help reduce shots."

In the end, it all comes back to confidence. When a goalie goes on a run like Johnson did in the NCAA tournament, his swagger becomes contagious.

"When you have a goalie that plays at a different level and gets you on a streak or run like Tillman Johnson did, it gives your team so much confidence," said Ohio State coach Joe Breschi. "If you can get that out of your goalie on a fairly consistent basis, anybody can win [a title]."

Said Johnson: "When you start to feel hot as a goalie, it's pretty dangerous. I know if I'm seeing the ball well, I want guys to shoot. I want them to come at me. Because that's how you kill the offense. Once they start getting frustrated, you know you've really done your job."

Sun staff writer Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

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