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 me 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."
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