COLLEGE PARK — — Former Maryland All-American goalie Brian Dougherty taught current Terps' goalie Niko Amato how to play the position when Amato was in grade school. He told him about the prestige of playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the excitement of contending for a national championship.
As a redshirt freshman, Amato's still has Dougherty in his head. When he leaves Maryland, Amato wants to be the best goalie in Maryland history, better than Jim Beardmore, better than Brian Phipps and of course, better than his hero, Dougherty.
Can he be?
"The sky is the limit for Niko," said Maryland head coach John Tillman. "If he wants to get better, continues to push himself and wants to make that total commitment to improving every aspect of his game, then he could become among the best at Maryland, and that's saying something."
Amato's play is a key to the Terps' run at the national championship. Maryland (7-2) has good senior leadership at every position, especially in front of Amato with three close defensemen in All-Americans Max Schmidt, Ryder Bohlander, Brett Schmidt and long pole midfielder Brian Farrell. The youngster among the crew is the 5-feet-8, 185-pound Amato.
Amato, a two-time All-American at LaSalle College High School in Conshohocken, Pa, has more than held his own. In nine games, he has a 6.3 goals against average with 81 saves on 219 shots. In the biggest game of the season last week against Virginia, Amato finished with 12 saves in a 12-7 Maryland win, including one from point blank range late in the third period which proved to be the play of the game for the Terps.
And possibly the play that saved their season.
"Instead of Virginia pulling within one, we get the save, score, and then score again in the fourth quarter, and we're talking about a three-goal swing from that save," said Tillman. "When Niko is playing like that our confidence grows, and we're pretty tough to beat in that situation."
But Tillman and the rest of his coaching staff weren't sure about Amato. This is Tillman's first season as head coach, so he had open competition among his four goalies in the fall. Amato survived a close competition with junior goalie Mark White.
Amato also had to fit in with the three senior defensemen, and the two Schmidt's and Bohlander have dominant personalities. Amato has been relatively quiet, but for the first time stood up and gave a rousing speech at halftime of the Virginia game.
It may have been Amato's coming out party.
"Those seniors around me are real comforting and they have a calming presence," said Amato. "They do a good job, and mentally it is very satisfying to know they have my back. Defensively, we're getting better every practice and every game. I thought I had a real strong camp in the fall, and you had to bring you 'A' game every day. It's still that way here in practice. If you don't improve, we have some people here who can step in and play."
Amato is more athletic than he looks. When he isn't playing lacrosse, he is on the basketball court. He likes to play in pickup games, and few can tell him he isn't NBA worthy as a point guard.
"When people ask me if I have a game, I tell them I do," said Amato, laughing. "I really don't."
And when he isn't playing a sport, he is either listening to some form of hip-hop or has his head stuffed in some sports magazine. Amato one day wants to become a teacher and coach.
But before then, he wants to become as good as Dougherty, who had 658 career saves, allowed 396 goals and had a save percentage of .624.
"He's from the Philly, area just like me," said Amato. "He taught me about the game, told me about Maryland, and that's why I decided to commit early. I owe a lot to him."
But there is still much to improve on before he approaches Dougherty's level. Dougherty, who enjoyed a long professional and international career, was a good communicator, and had no fear of coming out of the goal. His reflexes were extraordinary and when goalies had to come up big in big games, few were bigger than Dougherty.
"To get to the next level, he has to stay with the fitness and conditioning programs, and work on quickness," said Tillman. "He has great outlet passes, and gets the ball out and up. He gives us confidence. It was nice seeing his personality emerge in the Virginia game, and Niko is very competitive. He has a strong desire to be good, not just great."
Dougherty, who has long coached in the Philadelphia area and is now head coach at nearby Chestnut Hill College, talks to Amato weekly.
"He was a midfielder in the seventh grade, and one day we needed a goalie, and he played the position," said Dougherty. "After that, he stayed in the goal. I've trained hundreds of goalie, but never had one to pick up the game as fast as Niko. He has that attitude. There is something about him, something that reminds him of me."