Yale goalie Eric Natale doesn't want his dream to become a nightmare.
During most of his childhood days while playing for the Gamber recreation program in Westminster, he dreamed of playing in a NCAA Division I tournament game against one of the top teams in the country.
He gets to live that out at 3 p.m. Saturday at Byrd Stadium when unseeded Yale (12-4) plays No. 1 Syracuse (14-3) in the NCAA Division I lacrosse quarterfinals.
When it comes to offense, there are few teams that can match the Orange, which has five players with more than 30 points — midfielders JoJo Marasco (19, goals, 36 assists), Luke Cometti (28, 9), and attackmen Kevin Rice (21, 28), Derek Maltz (28, 7) and Dylan Donahue (22, 9).
Natale must stop them, or at least slow them down.
"As a kid, you always wanted to be in this position," said Natale, a sophomore economics major at the New Haven, Conn., school. "When the analysts talk about Syracuse, they always talk about the depth at midfield and their stingy defense.
"We're more focused on what we need to do, on working on our fundamentals, so we can make this a competitive game. It's a challenge and we have to meet the challenge, play up to our own expectations."
A lot of eyes will be focused on Natale. Syracuse has outshot its opponents, 632-551, and scored 204 goals while allowing only 149. Natale, who has started all 16 games this season, has a goals against average of 7.93 and a save percentage of 53.3.
He isn't flashy in the cage and isn't going to be creative while running down the field. He's just solid and steady. He makes the saves he should and comes up big on a couple he has no business in saving.
"Eric has been the rock for us recently, so consistent in stepping up and making plays," Yale junior defenseman Jimmy Craft said. "He has the unique ability to shake off goals and make the next play. We feel comfortable that he will keep the game close and allow us the opportunity to win."
It appeared Natale's opportunity to play had passed at the beginning of last season. He came to the Bulldogs as a highly touted freshman from Westminster High and won the starting job.
But Natale was benched after three games, despite winning the first two against St. John's and Albany.
"We didn't play great against Sacred Heart, and our coaching staff decided to shake things up," Natale said. "I understood that and we eventually went on a 10-game winning streak with a different goalie. At that point, I was still glad just to be on the team, but my mindset was to work as hard as possible, play hard and get the starting job back."
For those who know Natale, they expected nothing else. He is a low-key player who loves to read and listen to country music. Academics are his top priority, but he takes lacrosse seriously as well.
No one has ever questioned his work ethic.
"I think he made the All-County team four straight years," Westminster coach Steve DeFeo said. "He is very physically gifted, a phenomenal golfer. He was fast enough to play any position on the field and was extremely bright. He always had quick hands, and his passes were always on the dime."
According to Yale goalie coach Brian Schneider, Natale's demotion helped make him a better goalie. He came back bigger, stronger and faster this season. He has great confidence, which has become contagious.
"Last season was tough because he started the first three games, and then he had to go through some ups and downs, some mental hurdles," Schneider said. "He came back this year with a great work ethic, and things can only go up for him.
"This year, he has been able to slow the game down. He is more confident because he has 16 games under the belt, and he has felt more comfortable. He is, in terms of goal stopping, as good as they come."
He'll have to be against Syracuse. The Orange run as well as any team in the country, and Syracuse stays in constant motion when it comes down to six-on-six play. The Orange cut well off the ball.
"We played Maryland at home recently, and it was a great game," said Natale about the Bulldogs' 8-7 loss to the Terps on April 20. "They beat us by a goal, and their goalie Niko [Amato] must have had about 23 saves [he had 24], but it showed that we could play with the best. This is another big game against another great team played on a big stage.
"I'm definitely very excited about it because it's nice to have another opportunity."