- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2011

Former Maryland star Brian Dougherty hasn’t seen many - if any - goalies like Niko Amato.

Every now and then, the current Terrapins goalie makes sure to remind his mentor.

It’s an unusual blend of certainty and talent that connects the two. Dougherty was a two-time national goalie of the year in the mid-1990s. Amato, who worked with Dougherty while growing up in the Philadelphia area, wouldn’t mind doing better.

“He called me up and said ‘How many state championships did you win? One? I just won my second’ and he hung up on me,” Dougherty recalled this week. “Niko doesn’t just want to be the starting goalie for the Terps. He wants to be a first-team All-American and best goalie ever. I’ve always seen that in him.”

Amato’s off to a promising start.

After redshirting last year, Amato ranks second nationally in goals-against average (6.11) and seventh in save percentage (.599) as No. 4 Maryland (8-2) enters Saturday’s date with No. 3 Johns Hopkins (8-2) at Byrd Stadium.

It is perhaps Amato’s most high-profile game yet, and the first contest in a rivalry that claims to be the best in college lacrosse to be played in College Park since 2007.

It’s always a spotlight game, but Amato’s rapid maturation has helped the Terps recover from March losses to Duke and North Carolina to carry a two-game winning streak into their meeting with the Blue Jays.

Amato admitted there was some anxiety after sitting out last season, though he felt more comfortable after a preseason scrimmage at Syracuse. Amato had held off junior Mark White for the starting job but was a freshman with three seniors starting on close defense and fifth-year senior Brian Farrell at long pole.

“It was kind of a tricky spot because in one way you can look at it as ‘Wow, there’s all these veteran guys. Really, all I have to do is save the ball, because those guys can run the defense,’” Maryland coach John Tillman said. “So really, the pressure was off. But, there’s also the point ‘I’m a freshman and these guys are all seniors and I have to prove myself.’”

And so he has. Gradually, Amato became louder - encouraged to do so when it became obvious the Maryland defense thrived when Amato was more excitable.

Quality performances, such as a 19-save effort in a loss to Duke and a 12-save afternoon at Virginia, didn’t hurt, either.

“All my life, I’ve been the same age as the rest of my defense,” Amato said. “Now with guys being three or four years older than me, at first it was a little slow. I kind of deferred to them. But they’ve been real good with me. They told me one day after a game ‘You’re the goalie, you need to be barking out the orders. You’ve got to be telling us what to do. You’re the leader of the defense.’”

It isn’t really a shock Amato could blend in so quickly. The former high school All-American was a quick study even when he was in the seventh grade and first worked with Dougherty.

“It was the fastest of anyone,” said Dougherty, now the coach at Division II Chestnut Hill. “I do this a lot. I worked with a couple hundred goalies. Nobody got it as fast. Niko, he understood everything.”

Dougherty’s most memorable college performance was a 23-save masterpiece against Hopkins in the 1995 NCAA semifinals at Byrd Stadium. Amato, who took in last year’s Maryland-Hopkins game from the sideline, has a chance to start crafting his own legacy in the rivalry. If it’s a particularly strong start, perhaps Dougherty will get another call late Saturday.

“Just seeing the atmosphere that it was, and last year it was in the [Day of Rivals], so it was pretty magnified and pretty intense,” Amato said. “It’s just good to know and have some type of experience, because you can’t get that feeling on tape until you walk out of the tunnel.”