Virginia took the NCAA title behind Tillman Johnson's mastery in
Virginia coach Dom Starsia's fascination with goalkeeper Tillman
Johnson began three years ago at a summer camp before Johnson's
senior season at St. Mary's High in Annapolis, Md. After watching
him in only one workout, Starsia offered Johnson a scholarship. A
year later Starsia started him immediately, and the freshman
didn't disappoint him. Johnson held No. 5 Johns Hopkins to one
goal over the final 44 minutes of a four-overtime 9-8 victory,
then held Maryland, ranked No. 1, to its lowest goal total since
1948 in a 7-2 win. Now Starsia talks about the 6'1", 192-pound
junior in the hushed tones of a true believer. "He's the best
[goalie] I've ever had," says the 19-year coaching veteran.
On Monday the Cavaliers rode another stellar performance by
Johnson to the national championship, with a 9-7 victory over
top-seeded Johns Hopkins, in front of the largest paying crowd
ever to watch an NCAA lacrosse final--37,944 at soggy M&T Bank
Stadium in Baltimore. Johnson, 33-13 in his Virginia career,
stymied Maryland in the semifinals, turning aside 18 shots in a
14-4 win last Saturday. He then stopped Hopkins with a dazzling
array of point-blank saves, shutting out the Blue Jays for the
first 21:43 of the game and saving 13 shots in all. Three of
those came in a 15-second span early in the fourth quarter, with
the Cavaliers a man down and nursing a three-goal lead. "This is
all I ever wanted, a national championship," said Johnson, who on
Monday was named a first-team All-America and the tournament's
Most Outstanding Player. "I don't care about [awards]. I've been
dreaming about this since I was a kid."
Johnson has been minding goal since age eight, when he played on
an Annapolis youth team coached by former Penn goalkeeper Nick
Kallis. "He was a natural even at that age, with tremendous eyes
and feet," says Kallis. "The only times we'd lose was when I had
to play someone else in goal."
Starsia likes to extend his offense to emphasize the run-and-gun
skills of attackers like sophomores John Christmas (whose two
late goals against Hopkins raised his season total to 36) and Joe
Yevoli. That puts added pressure on Johnson. His statistics
suffer a bit--entering the Final Four, Johnson ranked ninth in
the nation in save percentage (.616) and 11th in goals-against
average (7.57)--but as Starsia says, "He makes more great saves
than most." Adds Yevoli, "He takes a load off us. We know the
ball's coming back up the field. He just dominates."
"Making that big save--that's what I think about before I go to
bed at night," Johnson says. "It can change the momentum of the
game. I feed off it."
After the victory over Johns Hopkins, Johnson was swarmed by
reporters and serenaded by a host of new believers in the stands.
Starsia stood in the tunnel, reflecting on his goaltender's
championship performance. "It's what I've been trying to tell
people the whole time," Starsia said. "That's what we've been
seeing for three years."
Since the first NCAA tournament, in 1971, at least one of this
year's Final Four schools--Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Syracuse and
Virginia (above)--has played in every championship game except in
'91, when North Carolina beat Towson.
Title Titles Last
Team Games Won Title
Johns Hopkins 15 7 1987
Syracuse 13 8 2002
Maryland 9 2 1975
Virginia 7 3 2003