Niko Amato barely saw Yale midfielder Harry Kucharczyk fire the 30-yard shot that was hurtling toward him Saturday afternoon. But the Terrapins men’s lacrosse goalkeeper knew he couldn’t let the ball squeak past him if he wanted to preserve his team’s 8-7 lead with less than five seconds remaining.

So Amato stuck out his left foot and barely clipped the rock-hard ball, deflecting its path away from the net and toward the post. The ball smacked off the pipe to preserve a crucial one-goal victory over the Bulldogs.

It was a fitting end to a noteworthy performance. The 5-foot-8, 185-pound Amato finished with a career-high 24 stops — the most saves by any Terps goalie in a single game since 2005 — in a showing coach John Tillman lauded as the contest’s decisive factor.

“I don’t know what it hit, but I know I felt pain,” Amato later said with a chuckle, referring to Saturday’s final play. “So I would have been pissed if it went in.”

The Terps’ starting goalie rarely goofs around on the lacrosse field. Yet Amato’s teammates and coaches know his determined game-day demeanor only highlights part of Amato’s makeup.

Away from fans, announcers and reporters, the Conshohocken, Pa., native is as outgoing and quirky as anyone. He likes to pour cold water on his teammates in the shower and strike up lengthy conversations about any random topic, and he’s always the first Terp to tell a joke.

That dichotomy in Amato’s personality — his insatiable competitive drive on the field, combined with his goofiness off it — is what makes him one of the nation’s premier netminders, coach John Tillman said.

The redshirt junior has earned All-ACC honors in both of his previous years as the Terps’ starter. He has provided a steadying presence as the team’s defensive anchor during back-to-back runs to the national title game. And he has established himself as a vocal leader on the nation’s No. 2 team this season.

“He can’t emulate anyone else,” Tillman said. “Niko’s figured out that he can be a great player in a way that suits his own personality.”

‘INTERESTING CAT’

On a near-empty lacrosse field in the Philadelphia suburbs in the spring of 2004, Brian Dougherty stood in awe of a pudgy 12-year-old with messy brown hair.

Dougherty, a Terrapins men’s lacrosse All-American goalkeeper in the mid-1990s, didn’t expect much from Amato in their first private lesson. Yet Amato showcased an awareness that usually takes aspiring goalies months — or even years — to develop.

“I’ve worked anywhere from 200 to 1,000 goalies out throughout the course of my life, and that was the first time I ever had a kid totally absorb everything I was saying,” Dougherty said. “It was pretty awesome to watch.”

So Dougherty figured Amato must be relatively tamed and disciplined. But soon after that initial lesson, Amato was making Dougherty laugh with goofy jokes and entertaining stories.

Dougherty had never felt this way around a seventh-grader. Amato was so comfortable, confident and laid back.

“If you know Niko at all, you know he’s an interesting cat,” Dougherty said. “He’s unique, he’s funny, he makes fun of himself. … It was almost like talking to a peer.”

The day after that first lesson, Dougherty knew Amato could become a Division I goalkeeper. The middle schooler’s unique combination of talent and personality was a perfect fit for the position, he said.

Kathy Amato, Niko’s mother, was hardly surprised her son impressed Dougherty with his personality. He’d been “chatting up a storm” with whomever would listen since he could talk, she said.

But Dougherty’s confidence in her son’s athletic ability was a bit more startling.

“That’s when I realized,” Kathy Amato said, “he really may be able to turn this into something.”

BUILDING CONFIDENCE

About a year after meeting Dougherty, Amato made the 20-minute trek to Philadelphia to watch his mentor’s former team play in the NCAA semifinals.

As he sat in Lincoln Financial Field with his cousin, Duke routed the Terps, 18-9. He watched as then-Terps goalkeeper Harry Alford saved only eight of 26 shot attempts.

The 13-year-old Amato was hardly an experienced goalie — he played attack when first picking up the sport at 10 — but a thought crept into his mind as the Blue Devils rattled off nine consecutive goals in a run spanning the first and second quarters.

“Yo, I need to be out there,” Amato told his cousin. “I could stop these shots right now.”

That confidence is part of the reason Amato was an honorable mention All-American last season. It’s still with him after every win and every defeat. It’s what makes him strive for perfection on a day-to-day basis.

After struggling in a 10-8 loss to North Carolina on March 23, he logged extra hours at practice the following week. He watched film and did whatever drills his coaches could muster up — all while maintaining his characteristic smile and telling his typical jokes.

The goalie stopped 14 of 21 shots and led his team to a 9-7 victory over Virginia days later.

“Niko understands he can’t change his ways,” Tillman said. “He’s got to be that same person. That’s what makes him the goalie he is.”

TEAM JOKESTER

Conrad Ridgway wanted Amato to join his Collegeville Cougars lacrosse team when he was just 10 years old. And it wasn’t necessarily because Ridgway — who played four seasons at Penn State before graduating in May — thought Amato would be good at lacrosse. He just figured the future Terp would be a fun addition.

“He was one of those kids who everybody knew his name,” said Ridgway, who also played with Amato at La Salle College High School in Wyndmoor, Pa. “Just a great personality to have on your team.”

That’s carried over to Amato’s career in College Park.

The communication major even keeps things loose before games, often engaging in shouting matches with faceoff specialist Curtis Holmes during bus rides to road games. The topic of conversation? Jokes about each other’s height.

Amato doesn’t just buddy up with his teammates, though. He often teases offensive players at practice, hoping to challenge them. It creates a competitive atmosphere, backup goalkeeper Kyle Bernlohr said. The Terps attack Amato even harder.

“He’s one of the funniest guys on the team, but he’s always getting us fired up for the game,” Bernlohr said. “It’s really important for our team to have someone like Niko.”

But as soon as the team’s bus pulls into its intended location on game day, the goaltender focuses on the task at hand. It’s uncanny, Tillman said. Amato takes everything so lightheartedly yet focuses on lacrosse so seriously.

“It comes a certain time when the jokes and games got to stop,” Amato said. “I think I’m as intense and passionate as it gets when the game is going on.”

PUTTING IT TOGETHER

When Tillman joined the program in the summer of 2010, the Terps didn’t have an established goalie on their roster. After 2010 All-ACC goalkeeper Brian Phipps graduated that spring, the slot was wide open.

Senior Mark White, a former high school All-American who had logged minimal minutes in three seasons, was the most experienced candidate for the starting job. Amato, the other contender in net, redshirted during his first season on the roster.

The two battled for the position throughout the fall and Tillman didn’t make a final decision until the last scrimmage before the season.

He chose Amato.

“Mark and I, we had a long battle throughout that year,” Amato said. “It was kind of strenuous, but it made us both work hard. And he pushed me, which I’m thankful for.”

Amato said he and White remain good friends. But once Amato locked down the starting job, he never made Tillman question his decision. Amato has started every game since.

The goalie finished eighth nationally with a .583 save percentage during his redshirt freshman campaign, and he earned All-ACC honors in the process. He seemed to play his best lacrosse in the NCAA tournament, giving up just 5.5 goals per game as he led the Terps to their first national title game berth since 1998.

Amato’s second season followed a similar path. He once again made the All-ACC team and took the Terps to another national title game. Despite a dip in save percentage, Amato was named an honorable mention All-American.

So there’s little doubt the goofy, outspoken kid from Conshohocken has morphed into one of the nation’s best goalies. But there’s still a feat that he hasn’t accomplished. He’s been to two NCAA championships and has fallen short both times.

This season, the Terps look poised to contend for another championship. Amato is anchoring the nation’s third-ranked defense, and the No. 2 Terps sport a stellar 9-2 record.

Lately, though, Amato has been asked to carry a heavier load. Tillman’s team has struggled offensively — they haven’t notched more than 12 goals in a game since early March — and opponents have been earning possession advantages.

With his teammates struggling to regain their offensive form, Amato has had to bail out the Terps and keep them in position to win. And that was certainly the case Saturday. Yale outshot the Terps, 48-29, but Amato’s 24 saves — tied for third-most in a Division I game this season — helped the Terps salvage a victory.

“When you are in a tight spot, you hope your best players step up,” Tillman said after the game. “Niko certainly did that today.”

So Amato stood on the Byrd Stadium field on Saturday drenched with sweat and breathing heavily. He had willed his team to a critical win — and sealed it with that narrow kick-save — moments earlier.

Amato might be the key component on a Terps team aiming to win the program’s first national championship since 1975, but he maintains he feels little pressure.

Tillman said the goalkeeper is already displaying the work ethic necessary to lead the team back to the sport’s final contest. Even after extra practice time or hours spent watching film, though, Amato will quickly relax and tell a teammate a joke.

His drive and overwhelming expectations haven’t yet changed his quirky personality.

“These four or five years we have go by pretty quick,” Amato said. “So there’s no reason not to enjoy it.”

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