After making a stick save on the shot, Joe Kirmser charges out of the goal, bouncing off a few opposing players until releasing a pin-point clearing pass to start a Duke fast break.
The crowd roars, the sidelines erupt and Kirmser's parents cringe.
Kirmser, a strong candidate for Goalkeeper of the Year, has had an injury-hampered lacrosse career and is currently playing with a large brace on his left knee, since his anterior cruciate ligament is completely torn.
Regardless, the goalie, whose No. 3 Duke team will play No. 7 Maryland in the ACC tournament tonight, refuses to play conservatively.
"I worry when I watch him," said his mother, Sally. "I tell him after games: Please stay back in the cage where you belong. Don't get your mom nervous. But he just laughs because he doesn't know how to play anything but 400 percent. He's our bionic kid."
His ailments have caused some major disappointments.
Kirmser, the Connecticut Player of the Year in lacrosse in 1992, couldn't play for the under-19 national team after high school because of knee surgery, which led to him being red-shirted as a freshman at Duke. As a sophomore, a year in which he was named third-team All-America, Kirmser was relegated to watching the Blue Devils lose in the first round of the NCAA
tournament to Notre Dame because of mononucleosis.
In an injury-free junior year, he posted a career-worst .579 save percentage and Duke failed to make the postseason. That's why he devoted his full energy in the offseason to returning to his previous form.
But then came the strangest two weeks of his life.
While playing a pickup basketball game in August, Kirmser felt some discomfort in his knee but believed it was from his previous surgery. After a physical on Sept. 28, doctors suggested an MRI, which revealed a 100 percent tear.
Kirmser's choices: surgery with no chance of playing his final season or a knee brace. Duke's team physician, Dr. Kevin Speer, said that an athlete playing with a complete ACL tear is "very unusual to the point of being rare," but Kirmser risks no further injury because his knee is stable.
"I was scared," said Kirmser, a fifth-year senior, who will decide on surgery at the end of the season. "I knew something was wrong with my knee and then I didn't know if I could play."
Just after starting physical therapy for the injury, Kirmser drove 11 hours back to his hometown of Wilton, Conn., to attend the first game of the American League Championship Series between the Orioles and New York Yankees. During the game, he felt his face "lock up."
Kirmser lost the feeling in more than half of his face as a result of Bell's palsy, a condition resulting from Lyme disease. He had painted houses during the summer in some wooded areas of Connecticut and believes it was then he was bitten by an infected tick.
Kirmser, whose palsy went away in less than a week with medication, had several treatments of antibiotics over two months to combat the lingering fatigue of Lyme disease.
"He was saddened by the Bell's palsy and didn't want to go back to school looking that way," his mother said. "But he did and acted like it was just one more thing to deal with. He has incredible spirit. We marvel at him."
Besides the knee brace, Kirmser, who said he feels no pain from the injury, has shown no effects of the offseason. Although the brace limits his mobility at times, he is fourth in the nation in save percentage (.637) and fifth in goals-against average (8.2).
The Blue Devils have won five of their seven games by a goal, and most of that success is because of Kirmser.
In the season-opener against Maryland, he made eight of his 22 saves in the fourth quarter, stopping the Terps' last two shots. Three weeks later, he led Duke to a one-goal victory over Georgetown, stopping three Hoyas shots in the final minute.
His best quarter is the fourth, having given up only 13 goals in the period in nine games. Not coincidentally, Duke is 5-0 this season when leading after three quarters.
"My game is making the saves when they matter the most," Kirmser said. "The best players are the ones who have a guy on a one-on-one with the game on the line and stuffs him. That's why I play goalie."
With his blend of quick reflexes and strong outlet passes, Kirmser is a key on the offensive as well as the defensive end of the field.
"If there is a thing such as offensive goaltenders, Joe Kirmser is the best in the country," Duke coach Mike Pressler said. "When Joe makes a save and comes up with the ball, we're on the attack. We're very dangerous coming out of the defensive end with Joe leading the break.
"He also doesn't guess on shots. A lot of goalkeepers do that. He takes a lot of pride in that. His eye-hand coordination is amazing."
Even when the ball gets past Kirmser, he has a hard time getting upset. Take Duke's first loss -- a 9-8 overtime defeat to Brown, when he allowed the game-tying goal with 20 seconds left in regulation and the winning goal two minutes into overtime.
"I looked down at my leg after that game and couldn't get that down because I shouldn't even be playing," Kirmser said. "I feel really blessed."
A look at how Duke goalkeeper Joe Kirmser has fared in games played, saves, goals allowed and save percentage:
Year .. GP .. Saves .. GA .. Pct.
1994 .. 16 ... 243 .. 165 .. .596
1995 .. 14 ... 218 .. 112 .. .660
1996 .. 12 ... 168 .. 123 .. .579
1997 ... 9 ... 123 ... 70 .. .637
Tot. .. 51 ... 752 .. 470 .. .615
Pub Date: 4/18/97