For much of his playing career in both high school and college, Jake Hagelin's shock of red hair has drawn more attention than his performances.
In fact, the junior goalkeeper for No. 6 Loyola has a variety of nicknames linked to what's on top of his head instead of inside it: "The Flying Tomato," "Wormser" and "Junior."
And if people continue to leave Hagelin out of the conversation about the top Division I goalies, that's fine with the Havre de Grace native.
"People ask me about that all the time, and I tell them that it doesn't bother me at all," he said. "I can't let that get under my skin."
Lately, it's Hagelin who has been getting under the skin and into the heads of opposing shooters. He and Fairfield senior Joe Marra are the only two goaltenders to rank in the top five in the country in both goals-against average (Hagelin is second with a 7.20 GAA) and save percentage (Hagelin is fourth with a .596 percentage).
Hagelin is a major reason the Greyhounds (9-2) need only to beat No. 18 Denver (10-4) on Sunday to win their third consecutive Eastern College Athletic Conference championship and second automatic qualifier in three years.
ESPN analyst and former Syracuse All-American midfielder Paul Carcaterra called Hagelin and Syracuse junior John Galloway the two most consistent goalkeepers this season.
"Hagelin has surprised me with his play," Carcaterra said. "His play is critical. However, I don't think he has to play great to beat Denver. Once in the playoffs, for them to advance and make a run, he will have to be at his best."
Reaching this stage has been somewhat of an arduous journey for Hagelin. Despite a 54-4 record as a starter for the Boys' Latin junior varsity squad as a freshman and the varsity team for his final three years, Hagelin was not offered a commitment to a Division I school until Loyola coach Charley Toomey contacted Boys' Latin coach Bob Shriver.
"Jake's a winner, and as weird as it sounds, here was this kid with a wonderful reputation and a wonderful record in high school, but guys weren't recruiting him hard," Shriver said. "He was going to go to prep school for a year. Charley kind of got lucky, too, because his second goalie [Marra] decided to transfer, and Charley was stuck in May without a goalie to back up Alex Peaty. So he talked to Jake, and Jake decided to pass on prep school and go to Loyola, and he's started almost every game."
With Peaty sitting out the 2008 season for unspecified personal reasons, Hagelin was forced to start as a freshman, going 7-7. The following year, Peaty returned and went 2-1, but Hagelin was the primary starter, compiling a 7-4 record.
Hagelin's junior season got off to a shaky beginning, as he made just three saves in an 8-7 overtime win against Navy, and as recently as last month, Toomey had Hagelin and Peaty split practice time as the No. 1 goalie.
"Not that we were toying around with halves, but we were challenging them," said Toomey, a former All-American goalie. "Every drill, we were switching out Alex and Jake and not giving one guy the whole practice. And that's when Jake kind of started to make his run. Competition's a good thing, and I've always said that we've got two very talented goalies that I feel very comfortable with."
Asked if the re-evaluation bothered him, Hagelin replied: "At first, it kind of did. It lit a fire under me, and I started playing better. I guess it was a good thing, and it's all worked out ever since."
Somewhat reserved off the field, Hagelin turns on the chatter when he's in the cage. Redshirt junior defenseman Steve Dircks said Hagelin is not afraid to call out his teammates when the defense is out of sync.
"He's always directing us," Dircks said. "He's calling out plays and picks and telling us where the ball is. If we're not paying attention, he'll make us pay attention."
The Greyhounds rank first in the country in defense, surrendering an average of 7.2 goals, and the unit will probably need to continue its high level of play to guarantee future success. But Hagelin shrugged off any individual pressure on himself.
"It comes down to the defense," he said. "We have to perform, and if it's me making saves and clearing the ball 100 percent, then that's what I have to do."