ANNAPOLIS | No. 14 Navy opened the season with Matt Coughlin at goalie.
When March rolled around, it was freshman RJ Wickham who was playing.
Was he ever.
Phelan made 15 saves - the most by a Navy goalie since 2003 - in Saturday’s victory at Georgetown, wresting control of a prominent gig as the Midshipmen (7-3) head into a Friday night date with No. 8 Maryland (6-3) at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
“We’re staring down the throat of the dragon here,” Meade said. “He’s rested. He’s prepared. He’s capable. He’s a very good leader. We’re making the change. I thought Tommy responded.”
It was the latest twist in an ever-shifting goalie landscape for the Mids - and a well-timed final turn for Phelan, who started for much of the final half of last season.
But then Coughlin won the job before Meade turned the gig over to Wickham. While Phelan wanted Navy to thrive, he also hoped to figure out just what was floating through Meade’s mind.
“I’ve done that for the last 3 1/2 years, and Coach just answered it for me,” Phelan said. “He said, ‘Tommy, don’t try and figure out what’s going on in my head because sometimes I don’t even know.’ He’s like, ‘Don’t try and gauge what I’m thinking, because you don’t know what I’m thinking.’ He sees what’s going on, but he’s never leaving me out to dry.”
Ultimately, Navy faced a question of how events could unfold if its goalies couldn’t provide a spark. If Meade opted to go with his two seniors back-to-back, uncertainty would await. Yet if he kept Phelan as a final option, at least there was a known quantity.
Meade explained the decision to go with Wickham to Phelan earlier in the season. Phelan disagreed, never giving up his belief he was the right choice as the starting goalie. As much as Meade respected the approach, he admired Phelan’s determined work in practice even more.
“I think Tommy came to the point where he said, ‘Screw it, I’m going to play the best I can,’ ” defensive midfielder Geoff Leone said. “You can’t worry about the things you can’t control, and I think that was important for Tommy to let it go and go out there and do what you can.”
The victory over Georgetown was invigorating for a bunch that has lost one-goal games to North Carolina, Bucknell and Colgate in the first half of the season. While Meade said neither Coughlin nor Wickham lost any games for the Mids, it was clear all season he was looking for a goalie to provide a jolt.
Phelan might be as capable as anyone. He made 11 saves in last year’s victory at Maryland, and his 12-save outing lifted Navy to an opening-round upset of North Carolina in the NCAA tournament. The Mids are entering their annual gantlet of rivalry games against Maryland, Army and Johns Hopkins, a time that seems well-suited for Phelan.
“As the season was going on, I was thinking maybe the best thing that could happen for me is I come in during the Colgate/Georgetown/Maryland [stretch] because I’m so used to playing at that level against those guys,” Phelan said.
Goalie switches have worked in the past at Navy - notably in 2004, when Matt Russell took over early in the season and led the Mids to the national title.
Russell graduated in 2006, and Navy has started four goalies in the 41 games since. Phelan’s sizzling return lends hope to Navy that its situation there is solved in time for a postseason push - not to mention in time to bolster the sagging total of dominant outings in the cage since Russell left.
“Every one that we’ve gotten, Tommy’s given us,” Meade said. “He’s a very good goalie in his way. With Tommy, you get what you get. He’s going to be in the middle of the goal. He’s going to stop some balls. He’s going to be consistent. We’re very fortunate right now we can go to a guy like that.”