So far, Maryland men's lacrosse coach Dave Cottle has handled a potentially explosive situation extremely well, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out down the stretch, and into the possible postseason.
Down in College Park, the Terps have two outstanding goalies. One is a senior, Harry Alford, a two-time All-American who missed the first seven games of this season because of a torn labrum that required surgery last November. The other is freshman Brian Phipps, who has started all 11 games and played perhaps his best game Friday night in an 8-7 double-overtime win against Navy.
Maryland will play perhaps the biggest game of its season Saturday night against visiting Johns Hopkins, and team trainers have told Cottle that Alford is close to being completely healthy. So, is this the time to make the change?
"Harry didn't return to practice until March 19, and we've gotten him some time against three teams, but couldn't last week against Navy, not with Brian playing so well," Cottle said. "They've both been practicing very hard, but at this time, I don't foresee any change."
It's the right call.
Playing goalie is unlike any position on the field. Let's face it, they're different. It doesn't take much to make them unstable. With Phipps, the Terps' goaltending situation is stable. He is allowing only 7.72 goals a game with a .612 save percentage. He was hot leading up to the Navy contest, and is now sizzling going into the Hopkins game.
There is little doubt Alford has better knowledge of the defense and commands more respect on the field from his teammates. He is probably jittery awaiting action on the sideline and wondering how he could lose his starting job because of injury.
But if Cottle pulls Phipps for Alford to start against Hopkins and Alford struggles, Cottle might have turned a good situation into a mess. Instead of having one unhappy player on the sideline, he could have two with shaken confidence.
You know Cottle has played this situation out in his head a thousand times. He has to because it's Hopkins week. Phipps might have played in some big games at Severn in Severna Park, but none of this magnitude. The Hopkins-Maryland series is one of the greatest in the history of college lacrosse.
"There was no way that I thought I would come in and be in this situation," Phipps said. "I thought I would be on the sidelines cheering on my brother [Terps senior attackman Michael Phipps] and Harry. I was a little nervous last week against Navy, but now I'm just more excited. After the Navy game, it was a win in a big venue. With Hopkins, I've seen their games before, and now I'm just excited to be a part of it."
You feel for Alford. He had been the starter the previous two seasons with a career save percentage of .596. Because of his speed and elusiveness, he could do things outside the crease few other goalies could do. It has to be hard sitting on the sideline watching his classmates play. Alford has played about 27 minutes this season, facing only 11 shots. At one point he thought about redshirting, but only briefly.
"I came in with this class, and I want to go out with this class," Alford said. "With this injury, I've pretty much had to learn how to do things differently. I have a different stance, a different way of throwing, and just a lot of different stuff. I have gone through as much mentally as I have physically. Of course, everyone wants to play, but this has been cool for me, and really is what is best for the team."
Alford has become the Terps' trump card. Phipps has yet to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference or NCAA tournaments. Earlier this season, he seemed baffled by the speed of Duke's offensive players, and their shots. If Phipps struggles, Cottle won't hesitate to bring in Alford. And if that happens, there will be no hard feelings.
Alford and Phipps are close friends.
"Yeah, we're really close; he is a class act," Alford said of Phipps. "I've learned a few things from him, and he works hard. It's been fun watching him improve. I've learned this game from a different perspective."
Phipps said: "We're good friends on and off the field. When I came in, I felt like I was holding his spot only until he came back from the injury. Harry has been one of my biggest supporters. During timeouts, he is always telling me when I made a great save, or maybe trying to help me on clears. He has been extremely helpful."