No stretch to say Terps, Navy could catch win in net

April 07, 2006|By GARY LAMBRECHT | GARY LAMBRECHT,SUN REPORTER

When eighth-ranked Navy squares off against No. 4 Maryland in an important meeting of men's lacrosse teams tonight, both schools will bring similar strengths and shortcomings to Byrd Stadium.

The Terrapins (6-2) and the Midshipmen (7-2) each are trying to avoid a third loss and a two-game losing streak as the jockeying for NCAA tournament seed positions begins in earnest. Both teams are coming off lopsided losses and are trying to take pressure off steady defensive units by getting their inconsistent offenses in gear.

And each team knows it has a security blanket camped in the net that could prove the difference in the outcome.

With all due respect to such stars as Terps senior attackman Joe Walters and Midshipmen senior attackman Jon Birsner, the 81st meeting between Maryland and Navy shapes up as a showdown between and a showcase of two of the sport's top goalkeepers -- Navy senior Matt Russell and Maryland junior Harry Alford.

Russell, who emerged during the 2004 season and created a spark that pushed Navy to the NCAA title game, is a two-time All-American who plays bigger than his 5-foot-7, 156-pound frame. He leads Division I goalies with a 4.42 goals-allowed average.

Alford, the former starting goalie of Team USA's under-19 world championship team, produced 25 saves in his first collegiate start in the 2005 opener, then overcame a midseason slump to lead the Terps to a conference title and a second straight trip to the NCAA tournament final four. Having faced stiffer competition than Russell thus far in 2006, Alford ranks fifth in the nation with a .632 save percentage.

"I feel like I'm more consistent this year. I'm more composed," said Alford, the backbone of a Maryland defense that is surrendering 6.26 goals a game. "Make the [defensive] calls. Make the clears. Do the little things. I don't let one goal ruin a whole quarter or a whole game. I don't get caught up in it. I realize it's a long journey and there's going to be ups and downs."

Terps junior defenseman Steve Whittenberg said Alford has always amazed him with his ability to cover both sides of the cage with unusually quick feet for a player who stands 5-11 and weighs 220 pounds. He added Alford the junior has a better feel for the game and for his defense than Alford the sophomore, for example in the way he picks the times to pounce on ground balls away from the cage.

"[Alford] is almost acrobatic. He'll be one side [of the net], then all of a sudden he's diving to the other side to save a shot," Whittenberg said. "He does stuff that blows your mind. He's bailed us out a lot."

Don't let Russell's diminutive size fool you. He is close to becoming a Navy Seal, and he has stopped endless shots and batted aside numerous injuries in the process.

Russell played for a quarter with a broken collarbone during the 14-13 loss to Syracuse in the NCAA final two years ago. He tripped over a curb two days before the Maryland game last year and suffered a severely sprained ankle, yet stood tall in the net by making 10 saves in a 9-8 Navy victory.

And he is nursing a bruised shoulder he suffered during last week's 9-5 loss to Georgetown. Russell leaped from the net and laid out Hoyas attackman Sean Denihan before he could get off a shot.

"Mattie might not be the biggest guy, but he's an intimidator," Navy junior defenseman Andrew Dow said. "Without a doubt, he builds your confidence."

Russell owns a 33-7 record as a starter by commanding the crease. His career goals-against average of 6.19 is ahead of the all-time leader, Rob Scherr, who finished with a mark of 7.73 at Johns Hopkins in 2003. Like Alford, Russell is aggressive going after ground balls in his area and will not hesitate to take away a shooter's angle by leaving the net to confront him.

"The crease is not my only domain," Russell said. "With my size, I'm not going to be able to come out and hit anybody. But I've always tried to be a heads-up player, and our goalie coach [Ray Finnegan] stresses making plays outside the net."

Maryland coach Dave Cottle sees Russell or Alford probably making a game-changing play tonight.

"They will have a lot to say about who the winner is," Cottle said. gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

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