By Chris Goldberg
Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 6/19/08
As the last line of defense on the lacrosse field, one might think La Salle goalie Niko Amato might feel lonely in the cage.
“We’re all family and we have this saying, ‘We have each other’s back.’
“We do this, especially in the huddle. I would look at (middie) Pete Schwartz and say, ‘Do you have my back? He’d then go out and score a goal and come back and say, ‘Do you have my back?’
In 2008, Amato and his teammates indeed made the plays for each other.
The Explorers, a team with few seniors, overcame the loss of their star midfielder and a late-season upset defeat to win the Eastern Pennsylvania Scholastic Lacrosse Association (EPSLA) and Keystone Cup championships.
Along the way, La Salle won 21 straight games, though none bigger or more memorable than its 7-6 overtime thriller over Haverford School in the EPSLA semifinals when it scored the game-tying and game-winning goals with dramatic buzzer-beaters.
After that, the Explorers shut down mighty Malvern Prep, 4-3, to win the EPSLA title and held off pesky Manheim Township, 7-5 for the last “true” state title before the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association takes over next year.
And behind the stingy defense that helped La Salle win its first state crown since 2004 was the smallish Amato, a junior with the propensity for a sharp wisecrack, a key defensive call and a gigantic save when it mattered most.
Amato, who allowed just 3.63 goals per game and saved just over 70 percent of his shots, earned the EPSLA tournament MVP honor and All-American status. He was a first-team All-Catholic League pick and was selected to the Philadelphia Lacrosse Association All-Star team which will play the U.S. Under-19 team Saturday in an exhibition game.
“I’m more of a vocal guy and I definitely say some things to get the team fired up,” said Amato. “I try to keep everyone loose in the locker room. Sometimes, I am dancing around; it is just a game.
“But I want us to have some passion when we get out there.”
Said La Salle coach Bill Leahy: “Niko is so passionate in all that he does. When we needed passion – especially when Tyler (Knarr) got hurt, and things were rough and down, Niko stepped forward and showed passion – and the others caught onto it.”
Leahy describes Amato as a lacrosse junkie. In fact, Amato wrote a five-page paper full of scouting reports and player breakdowns just before the season when Leahy asked for a simple paragraph of thoughts from each player.
Amato, known for his stocky build and sense of humor, said he appreciates his lacrosse roots and credits Philadelphia Barrage goalie Brian Dougherty for showing him the way as a young keeper.
Amato was tutored by Dougherty – a graduate of Episcopal Academy – as an eighth-grader at a lacrosse training center. When the center folded, Dougherty decided that Amato had potential and agreed to train him one-on-one. The results have been impressive.
“I always wanted to play attack in youth lacrosse,” said Amato, who attended Arcola Middle School in the Methacton school district. “They’d always stick me in the goal and I’d always go up and try to score a goal.
“I finally became a full-time goalie in eighth grade. Brian Dougherty took me under his wing; he is like an uncle to me. We have strikingly similar personalities.”
To no one’s surprise, Amato committed last fall to Division I power Maryland, the same school that Dougherty took to the 1995 national championship.
“I knew I wanted to go to Maryland back in eighth grade,” Amato said, “ever since I knew Doc went there.”
It was after a disappointing loss to Downingtown East in the finals of the EPSLA playoffs in 2007 that Amato and his teammates decided nothing would get in their way for 2008.
“I really don’t think we quite got it as a team last year,” Amato said. “We all took that game for granted. This year we told ourselves we’re going to the very last minute of every game. That drove us to the state championship.”
There were several other motivating factors. Late in April, La Salle lost Knarr, its ace face-off specialist and long-stick middie to a major knee injury. The team soon lost a 3-2 stunner to Germantown Academy and some observers thought Malvern Prep was the favorite to take the EPSLA.
The Explorers overcame a serious challenge from St. Joseph’s Prep to claim the Catholic League crown, rallying for a 6-5 win. Then, La Salle regrouped in the EPSLA playoffs and defeated The Prep, 13-3, in the quarterfinals.
That set up the semifinal matchup with Haverford School. The Fords took a 4-1 lead and appeared to have the game won until Schwartz scored with 0.8 seconds to send it into overtime.
Amato, who was brilliant in regulation, made several game-saving stops in overtime and Conrad Ridgway won it in the second overtime period with one-tenth of a second to play after snaring a centering feed from Randy Forster.
“The Haverford game was great,’ Amato said. “What else could you ask for? There were a bunch of lead changes, excitement, goals, saves…I thought the game had it all. I remember being down 4-2 and trying to motivate our defense to keep our heads in it. We never really had to come from behind too much; we were always up.
“I kept on motivating them because I knew the offense would come through. Then once they did, it was pure adrenaline in the overtime working for us. We got some key stops on ‘D’ and our offense put it in the back of the net.”
In the EPSLA title game, Amato and La Salle’s defense shut down the potent Friars and led 4-1 until two late goals made it 4-3. The victory over Manheim was somewhat anticlimactic, but again Amato was able to make the key saves.
“I think it was about being a family,” Amato concluded. “We’ve been real close all season. After we came back and won the (Haverford) game I think it showed how tight we were.”
Honorable Mention Player of the year: Matt Mackrides (Malvern Prep), Tucker Durkin (La Salle)
Tags: La Salle