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Stopping goals, achieving goals

Before Matt Russell discovered lacrosse as a youngster growing up in Connecticut, his primary objective in athletics was to penetrate the opposition's goal.

These days his principal aim is to prevent the opposition from penetrating his goal.

Now, as Navy's goalie, he is being mentioned in the same breath with the most accomplished goalies in academy history and has the inside track on a position on the All-America team.

Russell is a major reason the Midshipmen will be playing in their first NCAA Division I final four since 1981 this weekend at M&T; Bank Stadium. Second-ranked Navy will meet Princeton on Saturday in the semifinals.

"I was a hockey player, a right wing, growing up in a hockey family," he said. "But in the fourth grade, I turned into a lacrosse player. I loved it, starting as a goalie right away. When I got into high school, I stepped back from hockey. I wasn't as good at scoring as I am at stopping and I realized then my future was in lacrosse."

Russell obviously made the right one. When he replaced his friend, Seth DiNola, in the cage after a 12-9 loss to Ohio State on Feb. 28, the Midshipmen took off. They have lost only once since - a one-goal setback to No. 1 Johns Hopkins in a pulsating showdown last month - and have become the sentimental favorite to go all the way in the NCAAs.

Russell, only a sophomore, ranks second nationally with a 6.28 goals-against average and has allowed a mere 85 goals while making 129 saves for a .603 save percentage.

Quite naturally, he is being compared to Mickey Jarboe, Navy's all-time saves leader and a two-time first-team All-American (1999, 2000).

"Matt is more of a slasher than Mickey," said coach Richie Meade. "He's kind of a thick guy (5 feet 7, 154 pounds) and very athletic. Mickey was more lanky and cat-quick. He could get the outlet out faster than anyone."

When Meade put the versatile DiNola into the midfield, he had no qualms about Russell, who had been running neck-and-neck for the starting job with DiNola.

"We thought Matt was going to be real good because of his attitude," the coach said. "He has a swagger, but he's confident in a good way."

Said Russell: "I knew I was qualified. You need to be very confident to be a goalie. I was a little nervous the first game I played (a key 9-8 overtime win at North Carolina) because I wanted to step in and do well. Then, I was OK. I knew I could definitely run with these guys. A lot of things fell into place."

The opposition has taken heed of Russell's talent and self-assurance.

In the wake of last Sunday's 6-5 loss to Navy in the second round, Cornell coach Jeff Tambroni bemoaned an inability to finish on offense because "we just couldn't crack their goalie."

Princeton's Bill Tierney, regarded as one of the great minds in the game, this week lauded Navy's defensive style and said Russell is "a wonderful goalie who has emerged as a sophomore into being the premier goalie in the country."

That's lofty praise for a youngster who played a grand total of 15 minutes as a plebe and was hampered by a left shoulder injury.

But Russell stuck with it through those 5 a.m. drills in frigid January with a bitterly cold wind blowing off the Severn River.

He never saw Jarboe play but will link up with him this summer in the Jacksonville, Fla., area when he undergoes his summer deployment on an aircraft carrier.

Closer to home, Russell's adviser has been Greg Cattrano, the former Baltimore Bayhawk who was traded in the offseason. He patterns his game after Cattrano's.

"I loved his style of play," Russell said. "When you're young and you go from camp to camp, everybody tells you something different. I sort of followed him around wherever he was coaching. He was a really aggressive goalie, out of the net a lot. I liked that. He has a lot of people back on their heels after a shot, and a big part of the Navy offense is transition."

They still chat occasionally, especially before a big Navy game. None is bigger than the next one, so Cattrano and Russell will certainly correspond beforehand.

Russell also has heard from Navy goalies who played as early as the 1950s and said "definitely a piece of us plays for all the Navy people over there (particularly in the Middle East)."

He has no illusions about following Cattrano into professional lacrosse.

"I came here because I wanted to go military, get a spot in the Navy SEALS. Lacrosse had something to do with it, but I was thinking beyond that," he said. "I'd like to play in the MLL, but I don't think so. Reality has already set in."

Tournament data

What: NCAA men's lacrosse final four

Where: M&T; Bank Stadium

Saturday's semifinals: Navy (14-2) vs. Princeton (11-3), 11:30 a.m.; Johns Hopkins (13-1) vs. Syracuse (13-2), 2 p.m.

Monday's title game: 2:30 p.m.

TV: Semifinals on ESPN2; final on ESPN