In an offense-oriented game such as lacrosse, goalies only seem to grab the spotlight in the worst of moments.
It’s often much easier for them to blend in rather than stand out.
So, when they have the chance to alter the outcome of a close, crucial contest, they often relish the opportunity. For Red Lion boys’ lacrosse goalie Nick Serrano, one of those moments came late during the Lions’ May 2 tilt with rival Dallastown.
With about minute remaining and the Lions clinging to a one-goal lead, Serrano found himself in full focus.
“They came down with the ball, one minute left, time ticking down, I could hear the pressure from the crowd coming on as they were all screaming,” Serrano said “They worked the ball around, good ball movement, found an open guy. And I just didn’t hesitate, dropped to my knees, just got lucky I got a piece of it and my defense was there to back me up and get the ground ball.”
The Lions would run out the clock and collect a crucial 11-10 victory. One that was instrumental in Red Lion earning a York-Adams League playoff berth.
For Serrano, the stop was an example of playing fearless under pressure — one of the many traits needed to play the position well. While a good goal scorer is easy to spot, there’s a lot more to a good goalie than simply stopping shots.
As local teams begin their quests in District 3 play, here’s a look at what it takes to be a top netminder.
Communication key: Perhaps the most important aspect to being a good 'keeper is one of the easiest for the casual observer to miss.
A solid goalie needs to be able to communicate clearly, quickly and effectively.
While it might look as though the goalie is simply confined to the property in front of the net, they are actually the “quarterback” of the defense.
“They have to see the field, read the (opposing) offense, call out rotations and cutters, direct the defense on slides and positioning, and most importantly, track and save the ball,” Dallastown boys' coach Joe Slessinger said. “Doing all of that simultaneously for minutes at a time is very difficult, not to mention one mistake and the other team will put the ball in the net.”
Intelligence is also key. The goalie is tasked with making numerous reads and snap decisions. They must also be confident, with no time for hesitation or second guessing.
Cat-like reflexes: Not only do netminders need to make split-second decisions, they also need their bodies to act even more quickly.
Shots are usually being hurled at close range, with distances varying from a few feet to 20 yards away. Those five ounces of solid rubber are often traveling at speeds ranging between 70 and 90 mph — sometimes more.
This often leaves a goalie with fractions of a second to react.
According to Laxpower.com’s calculator measuring reaction time, a goalie facing an 80 mph shot from 15 yards out would have 0.3835 of a second to react. For the sake of comparison, using the distance to the mound in baseball (60 feet, 6 inches), a batter would have 0.4125 of a second to react to a pitch traveling 100 mph.
“Normally shots are much closer, and even sometimes faster, and would result in the goalie having a quarter of a second to react to make a save,” York Catholic boys’ coach Shane Harper said. “Ten saves in a lacrosse game with having a quarter second to react isn't bad.”
Many of the games between the area’s top teams are decided by tight margins, so one wrong reaction can easily alter an outcome.
Good hands: As with a good hitter in baseball, quick hands are vital to the success of a goalie.
“Hand speed is really, really important,” Susquehannock girls’ coach Steve Marshner said. “Proper hands speed helps accelerate getting your stick in the right spot, and there are techniques on top of that that help align the body.“
There’s not much to use beyond their stick, and simply deflecting the shot isn’t a guarantee the possession is over for the opposition. The main point is to snag the ball, reverse possession and clear it to get the action flowing the other way.
In fact, it’s the act of clearing that can sometimes be the hardest to master.
Also, unlike most goalies who usually stop direct shots, lacrosse goalies are also tasked with stopping "bounce shots." These are just as they sound. Utilizing the hard-rubber nature of the ball, they usually shoot sharply upward on turf and can be wildly unpredictable on grass.
For most goalies, the best way to take on these shots is to act similar to an infielder in baseball and get their body in front of it.
Overcoming fear: Another positive trait of the best goalies is fearlessness.
Unlike their field and ice hockey counterparts, lacrosse goaltenders aren’t covered in lots of padding. Perhaps the most noticeable area left vulnerable for a lacrosse keeper is the legs.
Given the fractions of a second for reaction, there’s little time for self-preservation.
“The good goalies are ones that are fearless, physically and mentally tough, and, to a degree, insane,” Slessinger said. “To stand there and take shots reaching 90 to 100 miles per hour from no further than 10 to 20 yards, you have to be a little off in the head.”
Red Lion starter Nick Serrano on what makes a good lacrosse goalie.
As with most other fears, the best way to get past it is to face it head on.
“When I’m out with youth players, that’s always the number one thing they always bring up is fear, ‘How do you get over fear of the ball?’ And I tell them, ‘At the end of the day, it’s a ball,’" Serrano said. “The more time you spend in net, the more comfortable you’ll be with that ball coming at you as fast as it is.”
Most goalies will also tell you that once you’ve faced it, it becomes second nature.
“It’s one of those things where the quicker it (happens), the faster you get over it. As a goalie, when you first start out that’s something that’s always in the back of your mind: ‘Oh this is going to hurt,’" Serrano said. “But, once it finally happens, you end up building up a tolerance of the physical play of being a goalie.”
Mental strength: Not only must a good goalie be able to take a pounding physically, they must also to be able to take a beating mentally from time to time. They can’t be afraid to get scored on. Lacrosse by nature is a high-scoring game. When they're scored upon, goalies quickly need to display a mental toughness and resiliency.
If they allow their focus to be clouded, they run the risk of a costly dereliction of their duties directing the defense.
“You have to have patience when (the opposition does) score a goal. Because if you keep a mentality that they’re going to keep scoring goal after goal, you can get down on yourself really fast and they’ll score even more,” Susquehannock girls’ sophomore goalie Sam McGuire said. “You have to, as my Dad would always say, ‘Flush it and forget it.’”
For most, the pain of being scored on far outweighs taking one off the shin to make a save.
The York-Adams League netminders set to embark on their district playoff journeys are surely hoping to snag more memorable moments than flushed failures.
Reach Elijah Armold at firstname.lastname@example.org.