The Naval Academy is full of tough guys. And then there is Navy lacrosse goalie Matt Russell, the ultimate tough guy. He is just one bad dude, all 5 feet 7 and 155 pounds of him.
"I like the tough-guy image," Russell said. "I've always tried to be bigger, stronger and faster. If you younger guys look at me and say, 'Hey, look at him, he's done it,' then that's good. It's great being one of the leaders on this team."
Russell, a senior, will lead the unseeded Midshipmen (11-3) to Georgetown on Sunday for a first-round NCAA Division I tournament playoff game against the No. 8 seed Hoyas (10-2). If Navy is to get through this week, Russell, an All-American, has to have a great game. If Navy has any chance of winning the following week against No. 1 Virginia, which should smack around Notre Dame in another first-round game, then Russell will have to have the game of his life.
The tough guy will have to get even tougher and better.
That has been Russell's MO since he came to Annapolis four seasons ago. Two years ago in the national championship game against Syracuse with about eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Russell left the game. It sounds like no big deal until you find out that Russell had been to the sideline four previous times getting a separated shoulder pushed back into place.
"It got to the point where it became uncomfortable," Russell said.
Uncomfortable? A day later, Russell was found to have a broken collarbone.
Last season, only hours before the Mids were supposed to play Maryland, physicians told Russell he had to sit out the game after he rolled his ankle the night before while running. The tough guy played. Russell had 10 saves and allowed eight goals. Final score: Navy 9, Maryland 8.
"Just about anyone will tell you that injuries bug you more in practice than in a game," Russell said. "The intensity of the game takes away the pain. The adrenaline rush is a big factor."
Russell approaches the game with the same passion he does in trying to become a Navy SEAL. Soon after graduation, he'll be sent off to Basic Underwater Demolition School for six to eight months. If he completes the course of study, which has a 70 to 80 percent attrition rate, he'll participate in SEAL qualification training, which has more high-speed instruction and special schools.
If he endures that, he could be deployed with a unit somewhere in the world about 18 months from now. It's going from a highly competitive situation to a potentially life-threatening one.
"I know the reality of the situation here, but I don't look at it that way," said Russell, referring to war. "I know that this is more than the average college experience, that when it's over, I might be in harm's way.
"But I've got to focus on my senior year. We're in the hunt for lacrosse, and this an exciting and challenging time. I'm a highly competitive person, and people depend on me. That's what the Navy is about. That's what Navy lacrosse is all about. We depend on each other."
Russell was a tough kid growing up in Madison, Conn., where his favorite sports were lacrosse and hockey. Both Syracuse and Georgetown recruited him for lacrosse, but those schools couldn't offer him a chance to become a SEAL. Russell enrolled at Navy even though one of the nation's former top high school goalies, Seth DiNola, was only a class ahead of him. Early in his sophomore year, Russell replaced DiNola and the Mids won nine straight.
Russell has performed well this season, too. This is his team. In nearly 800 minutes played, he has a goals-against average of 5.18 and a save percentage of .577. Maybe some of that Navy SEAL training has come in handy (boxing, wrestling, martial arts). Russell's days are filled with the long swims and runs needed to become a SEAL.
"Whether it's on the field, at games or practice, or in the weight room, I don't want anyone ever to outwork me," Russell said.
But Russell and the Mids need to find a way to beat Georgetown. The Hoyas have won four of the past five meetings, including two straight, and handled the Mids pretty easily, 9-5, on April 1.
"The last time we played them, we didn't shoot real well, didn't pass real well, either," Russell said. "I can't take anything away from Georgetown. They have a great coach [Dave Urick] and he prepares them for us extremely well."
Russell looks to make one more run into the postseason. Only this time, he'll have to perform better than ever. Chances are, he will. email@example.com