With Johnson, Virginia's Starsia sees results of his eye for talent

Goalie from St. Mary's will lead No. 1 Cavaliers against Hopkins tonight

College Lacrosse

March 22, 2003|By Rich Scherr | Rich Scherr,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

University of Virginia lacrosse coach Dom Starsia saw something special in goalie Tillman Johnson, even though most others hardly saw Johnson at all when he was a high school junior.

Despite starting his sophomore season at St. Mary's High in Annapolis, Johnson rode the bench the following year - the one considered most crucial for college recruiters - in favor of Chris Garrity, now a highly regarded senior at Penn State. Undaunted, Starsia continued to look at Johnson as his goalie of the future.

It's a move that continues to pay handsomely for the top-ranked Cavaliers (5-0), who will visit fourth-ranked Johns Hopkins tonight at 8. After becoming the first sophomore in 19 years to be named an All-Atlantic Coast Conference goalie, Johnson was selected as a preseason first-team All-American.

"He's the best goalie I've ever coached," said Starsia, Virginia's 11th-year coach. "He's our leader on the defensive end of the field, and he's been our best player since the first day of practice, hands down."

Blessed with uncanny quickness for a player his size - 6 feet 1, 192 pounds - Johnson reacts to the ball with a singular decisiveness, and he plays with the kind of emotion that often inspires teammates.

"When I make a big save, I feel like I just have to let it out," said Johnson, 21. "I enjoy being out there and I show it when I play. It's not because I'm trying to be cocky or anything. I'm just having a blast out there. I try to play with all the emotion I can and boost the team whenever we need a little extra help."

He gave the Cavaliers more than a little help in wins over Hopkins and Maryland his freshman season that raised him to the level of the nation's elite.

Against the host Blue Jays, he recorded 18 saves and allowed just one goal over the final 44 minutes of his team's quadruple-overtime win, then came back the following week to shut down visiting Maryland, recording 16 saves in a 7-2 win.

"Those are games we don't win without Tillman," Starsia said.

After first picking up a lacrosse stick at age 6, the youngster was heavily molded by a pair of former Ivy League standouts.

His next-door neighbor was Highley Thompson, who as a senior played for Princeton's first NCAA title team in 1992.

Once involved in the sport, he met Nick Kallis, a former Penn goalie who saw potential for the aspiring midfielder in goal and taught him the basics as his longtime youth coach.

"It just turned into something that I enjoyed more than midfield or any other position on the field," said Johnson.

At St. Mary's, Johnson also played defensive end in football, in addition to hockey. Being a lacrosse goalie, however, had become his passion, and he dreamed of taking his game to the collegiate level - a dream that suddenly seemed remote when he was benched for a hotter goalie his junior year.

Starsia, however, had kept Johnson on his radar after noticing his potential at his summer camps in Charlottesville.

"He kind of jumped out at some of the coaches in the camp," Starsia said. "He was just the best ball stopper I had seen in some time."

Starsia offered him a scholarship before the start of his senior year at St. Mary's, and Johnson has had the starting job since joining the Cavaliers.

"If I have my mind set on being good at something, then I will do it," Johnson said. "I might not be the fastest guy or the strongest guy, but I'll definitely work the hardest to excel."

NOTE: Tonight's scheduled broadcast on Channel 2 has been canceled so the station can show coverage of the war in Iraq.

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