- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2006

A close-up shot of Navy goalie Matt Russell in action provides some hints of the subject, but not the totality of it.

His eyes are wide, entertaining the potential permutations that could unfold before him.

His mouth is usually moving, barking orders to defensemen long accustomed to trusting him.

His feet are nimble, prepared for a short sprint out of the crease to catch an opponent off guard and prompt a transition opportunity the other way.

And then there’s the eye black slathered over his face, lending elements of cool, unpredictability and savvy to a man who has plenty of all three in reserve.

It has been there throughout Russell’s three-year stint as the starting goalie for the Midshipmen, and it will remain there when he leaves for extensive Navy SEAL training in about three months. His long-time dream of entering the military accomplished, Russell’s desire to be among the elite is not just limited to the lacrosse field.

There, he already is well regarded as the bedrock of the Mids’ defense. His consistency over the last three years is unmatched, his intensity unbridled. Purposefully manic but always in control, Russell’s relentless steadiness and occasional flash is a big reason the Patriot League champs can dream of a long NCAA tournament run this month.

About the only thing missing from Russell’s resume is a national championship, one he and the Mids came within a game of winning two years ago. Today, Russell begins what he hopes is an extended farewell to his college career when Navy (11-3) visits eighth-seeded Georgetown (11-2) in a first-round game.

“He’s been very, very good under a lot of different circumstances,” Navy coach Richie Meade said. “He played all of last year hurt and I think he’s played very well this year. I think there’s something to be said for consistency. I think he’s going to go down as one of the greatest goalies that ever played here, and that’s a big deal.”

A ‘thoroughbred’

Russell decided the first time he saw a lacrosse game that he wanted to be a goalie. His father, Bob, played at Ohio University and coached Matt throughout his childhood.

Bob Russell was also an NCAA hockey referee, and the boys would make frequent trips to West Point. There, cadets in uniform would attend to refs, leaving a lasting impression on a boy intrigued at the prospect of ruck sack runs in the middle of the night.

That influence carried over into routine activities, like the frequent neighborhood paintball outings at his Madison, Conn., home. Bob Russell remembers his middle son going to the Army-Navy store and purchasing camouflage to aid his cause.

“Matthew was always the ultimate commando who would go through 18,000 paintballs and win the flag at the other end,” Bob Russell said in a telephone interview yesterday from Rochester, N.Y., where Matt’s younger brother Kevin played for St. Lawrence against Geneseo in a Division III tournament game.

“Matthew was good about never ruining the afternoon of the little kids. That pretty much sums it up. He’d go after the big kids with the thought ‘You want to deal with me? Then deal with me.’ The big kids didn’t want to get on Matt’s bad side because he was pretty focused.”

Matt Russell decided by his senior year of high school he wanted to go into the Navy SEALs. It didn’t matter that he didn’t know much about the SEALs at the time, but the more he learned, the more he liked.

He mentioned the idea to Meade during his freshman year in Annapolis, and the coach offered further encouragement. Mere weeks before last season began, Russell endured a SEAL screener in Annapolis — a 48-hour ordeal of being uncomfortable and cold that happened to take place during a blizzard.

His performance there earned him a spot at a four-week mini-BUDS (Basic Underwater Demolition School) last summer in Coronado, Calif. That intense experience (“A lot of it is being cold and tired, wet and sandy the whole time,” Russell said) has only helped Russell develop even more as a person and a player in the last year.

“I haven’t even tasted it and I haven’t even made it to BUDS, but some of the things I’ve had to do, it’s a confidence booster,” Russell said. “You’re like, ‘Wow, I did that.’ I was out in that blizzard in a bathing suit crawling around in the snow. Stuff that at the moment you’re thinking, ‘What am I thinking?’ but when you look back you have this bond with the guys you did it with.”

Many civilians would also question why Russell would want to go through the full-fledged BUDS process, a six-to-seven month grind that begins Aug. 28 in Coronado. Or wonder what appeal lies in a two-year cycle that includes six months of speciality schools, six months of platoon work, six more months of work with weather, intelligence and supply personnel and then six months of deployment in a dangerous environment.

To Russell, it’s obvious.

“The reason I want to do it is because they’re some of the most uncrazy guys,” said Russell, who will receive his degree in international relations later this month. “They’re the most highly educated, highly motivated, physically fit [people]. Just thoroughbreds. Division I athletes, that’s what attracts me to them, they’re thoroughbreds. They work harder, they’re stronger and faster than all the guys. This is sort of the Division I aspect of the military.”

That mentality only engenders more respect from opponents in a sport long influenced by quality teams from the service academies. Navy’s on-field resurgence in the last few years combined with global concerns have only accentuated the appreciation the rest of the sport has for stars like Russell.

“He’s one you’re glad he’s on our side,” Georgetown coach Dave Urick said. “A lot of people should feel good about that.”

Consummate leader

Midfielder Steve Looney has played with Russell for five seasons, going back to their year at the Naval Academy Prep School. He has grown accustomed to Russell’s stellar play, but remains impressed with his friend’s ability to remain in thorough command of those around him.

“He’s a great goalie and some of the saves he makes are amazing,” Looney said. “When I’m playing defense down there, he’ll be like, ‘C’mon Steve, do this’ and I’ll think, ‘You know what, I will do this.’ It fires me up.”

Russell is the veteran on Navy’s defensive unit, and his nation-leading 5.18 goals against average is a reflection of both his talent and ability to bring forth the best in his teammates. He has done so for three years and helped Navy fuel its lacrosse renaissance in the last three years.

But the 5-foot-7, 156-pounder is Navy’s undisputed on-field leader, a figure far larger than his diminutive status would suggest. He brings an analytical style his father noticed a long time ago, one set on producing results without much teeth-gnashing.

“He’ll call you out on it if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do or you made a stupid play or a selfish play,” midfielder Tommy Wallin said. “I tried to run through six guys [against Army on April 15] and got the ball taken away and it’s my fault they scored. He came up afterward. He didn’t yell at me, he’s a good leader, but he said, ‘What are you doing. Stop. Don’t make a stupid play. Let’s do this.’ He’ll tell you how it is.”

Fearless in chasing groundballs, Russell will jump up and down and to further encourage his defense. But beyond the spontaneous emotional displays is the repetitive process of making seemingly every easy save as well as some of the hard ones every time out.

“I think consistency is the biggest thing for goalies, and there’s only two or three guys out there that you know are going to play consistently every game,” Russell said. “I feel like I’ve been really consistent throughout my career.”

Reliability only endears him further to the Navy staff. Ask Meade for a memorable Russell story, and he’ll tell a half-dozen. Like the time Meade saw him during the SEAL screener in the blizzard and Russell smiled and said, “It’s no problem.”

Or in the fourth quarter of the 2004 title game against Syracuse when Russell broke his collarbone. Meade pressed his face against Russell’s fasemask and asked how he was. Russell merely grinned and said, “I’m fine.”

Or helping the Mids beat Maryland on a badly sprained ankle last spring, an injury that quietly lingered the rest of season.

The best stories might be the ones that will unfold in Russell’s demanding career, tales almost no one will ever hear. Still, there are the next few weeks for Russell to make some more incredible saves, fuel a few upsets and complete the picture of an already remarkable career.

“I hope my favorite Matt Russell story is yet to come,” Meade said.

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