BALTIMORE -- When Notre Dame faces off against Maryland in Saturday's NCAA semifinals it will be the third time the two have played this season. That means it will be the third time the Fighting Irish will try to solve Terp senior net-minder Niko Amato.On April 19, Notre Dame scored eight goals in a 12-8 loss in South Bend, Indiana. Six days later, in the Atlantic Coast Conference semifinals, the Irish returned the favor. However, Kevin Corrigan's squad scored just six times, the last one coming with 6.5 seconds remaining when Matt Kavanagh took a pass from Jack Near.
The stakes are a bit higher on Saturday and Amato has plenty of big-game experience.
As a freshman, the Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, product Amato started all 18 games of the 2011 campaign. His first NCAA tournament game saw 13 saves and a key role in a 13-6 win against North Carolina. He again came up huge in the quarterfinals, holding top-seeded Syracuse to five goals. A round later, in the NCAA semifinals, Duke scored only four goals in a 9-4 Terp victory. Despite giving up just nine goals, UM was on the losing end of a 9-6 NCAA championship contest against Virginia.
It was more of the same a year later; only once in four NCAA tournament games did an opponent erach double figures on the scoreboard. But again the Terps came up one win short, falling to Loyola (Md.) 9-3 in the title affair.
After a first round loss to Cornell in the 2013 Championships, Amato once again is part of an NCAA semifinal squad. After becoming the first goalie in ACC history to be named to the all-conference team four times, Amato was named first-team All-American last week by the USILA. He was voted the defensive player of the year in the nation's most rugged league.
At just 5-foot-8 inches, Amato is a giant standing in front of the UM cage.
"He's terrific," Corrigan said. "He's calm, he throws great outlet passes, he's an emotional guy for them. But when I say calm, I say calm in that he doesn't get nervous in there, jumping around and doing things. He sits on his line and trusts himself; he's an emotional leader for [Maryland] with the plays that he makes there and then he gets their transition going. He's the package as a goalie."
Maryland head coach John Tillman knows only Amato in net. In four seasons running the program, Tillman has a career record of 48-18, the same for his senior goalkeeper.
"He's been a model of consistency," Tillman said. "He's played well in the big games. We've leaned on him a ton, and he's always risen to the occasion. I know that in my four years here, I can appreciate and don't take for granted what he has meant to our program.
"I've got to think he's one of the best goalies to play in the last 10 years in terms of consistency."
Good goalkeeping is nothing new to Maryland lacrosse. Annually, the USILA award's the nation's best goalie the Ensign C. Markland Kelly Jr. Award. It started with William Larash in 1952; James Kappler earned the honor three times (1955-57) with John Schofield earning the honor in 1965. Brian Dougherty won the award twice, in 1995 and 1996.
On Friday, Amato joined that list. His 7.23 goals against average ranks fourth in the country and his 57 percent save percentage are eighth.
"Playing defense in lacrosse is definitely a group effort," senior midfielder Brian Cooper said. "But having someone like [Amato] obviously makes a big difference. I think everybody has confidence, knowing he is back there."
Entering the weekend, all the awards, all the past success are stored away for future consideration.
"It's definitely big, but not winning a national championship those first two years was disappointing," Amato said. "There is still a lot of work to be done this weekend."
Like most young athletes, finding a position on the field requires trial and error. Some are not built to field ground balls, to turn the double play. There are those meant to block and those meant to pass and catch. In regards to lacrosse, some have an ability to find the back of the net from distance, from in close, in traffic with the chop-chop-chop of long-stick defenders menacing them. Others have an ability to see the field and deliver precision passes to attackers. Some grind it out at the face-off X.
How is someone convinced to stand in front of a goal measuring 6-feet tall and 6-feet wide while opponents bombard you with shots at your head, your exposed shins? Think hockey goalie or baseball catcher without the gear.
Playing goal in lacrosse is not for the timid. And it's certainly not for someone with slow reaction response.
"I like the limelight and it was something I'm good at," Amato said this week. "It was fun when I was successful in the cage; you get a lot of attention when you do well, so that's something I've always wanted to keep doing and luckily for me it's worked out.
"Some people say you have to be a little crazy [to play goalie], but I enjoy it. The shooters at this level are really talented and they don't really hit you as much as you'd think."
Through two games in the 2014 championships, Amato, as usual, has been good. In a first round win against Cornell, Amato and the Terps trailed 5-1 at halftime. Without their senior goalkeeper, the damage could have been far worse -- Amato made seven saves in the first 30 minutes. The Big Red found the back of the net just twice over the final 30 minutes as the Terps rallied to a dramatic 8-7 victory on Mike Chanenchuk's last-second goal. Bryant, after upsetting Syracuse in the first round, did not provide much resistance in the quarterfinals, a 16-8 Terp victory.
Round three of Maryland-Notre Dame could be a dandy. Since the Irish's 6-5 win against Maryland on April 25, Corrigan's crew has been as good as anybody on the offensive end. The results speak for themselves: 15-14 against Syracuse in the ACC final; 18-17 over Army; 13-5 against Harvard in the NCAA's first round on May 10.
The Notre Dame offense really came to life last weekend. Down 12-7 with a little more than eight minutes to play against an Albany, the Irish scored four goals in a span of 1:52. Down 13-11 at the five-minute mark, Westy Hopkins and Sergio Perkovic tied the game. Kavanagh's effort, picking up a big ground ball, and an athletic attack in overtime, pushed Notre Dame into the national semifinals.
Amato will be waiting on that potent attack come Saturday.