As the final seconds melted away on championship Saturday in Kennesaw, Ga., New York Lizards goalie Drew Adams had one thought: “We did it, we finally did it!” Drew Adams long wait for a championship – any championship – was over.
Adams grew up in Springfield, Pa., a few miles west of downtown Philly. As a kid, he played soccer, hockey and lacrosse. He was a hockey goalie, but he played other positions on the lacrosse field. “I was a middie, took some face-offs. I liked to run around the field,” says Adams. In eighth grade, his team’s starting goalie suffered a broken collarbone. Adams got his shot, and a star was born. By his junior year at Springfield Delco High School, Adams was a starter and was getting plenty of notice.
“He was the best goalie in the state by then,” says MLL legend Brian Dougherty. “I was working with him at clinics and camps, and it was clear how good he was even then; he was so mentally strong. That’s the most important thing for a goalie at the world-class level. It’s 90% mental and 10% physical.”
Dougherty should know. The former Maryland star won three Steinfeld Cups (two with the Barrage, one with the Lizards) along with two gold medals at the FIL World Championships. He is now the head coach at Division II Chestnut Hill near Philadelphia. He and Adams became good friends in Drew’s rookie year in MLL in 2009 when they were both with the Lizards.
“Doc was finishing up his career with the Lizards, and I was just starting mine,” says Adams. “We would ride together from Philly to Long Island to practices and games. It was a great experience for me, just listening to Doc tell stories about the game, and how to be a great goalie.” Now the two are business partners running goalie camps and clinics all over the northeast.
What Dougherty saw when Adams was in high school, others noticed too. He was heavily recruited by Penn State, Dougherty’s alma mater Maryland, and Syracuse. “I went to the Carrier Dome twice to watch games,” says Adams. “I really wanted to go there, but they went with another goalie instead. Maryland had a lot of goalies on its roster, so Penn State was an easy choice.” It was the right choice.
Adams was a four-year starter in Happy Valley for legendary coach Glenn Thiel, and he earned three-time ECAC goalie of the year and two-time All-America honors. Adams had strong family ties to Penn State; his older brother, younger sister, and an Uncle were all Nittany Lions. “My family could drive three hours and see me play; it was perfect.”
In every way except for one: He never won big. In the days before the ECAC tournament, only the regular season champ went to the NCAA Tournament. “We lost out to Georgetown every year,“ says Adams. “It was frustrating not to ever play in the NCAA Tournament.
A past, and future teammate was going through some of the same frustrations. Greg Gurenlian, this year’s record-setting FOGO and MLL MVP, went to the same high school and to Penn State — the Beast was a senior when Adams was a freshman both in high school and in college. The two would join forces again with the Lizards, first Gurenlian and then Adams in 2009. Each ended their personal streak of futility in Kennesaw, winning the Lizards’ first title in a dozen years. “He was just as hard working in high school and college as he is now,” Adams says. “Besides my family, Greg was the one I enjoyed winning the title the most,” he adds. Drew-tee and the Beast. They’ve known each other since 2001, and finally it was time to celebrate.
“After each prior season ended, Greg and I would look at each other and say is this our fault? Are we jinxed?” Adams says.
Getting to that point on championship Saturday – to raise the Steinfeld Cup – was not easy for Adams. Once Dougherty decided to hang up his goal stick in 2010, Adams took over as the Lizards’ starter. He won MLL goalie of the year three times, including this year, but the Lizards could only advance as far as the semifinals. He also made the Team USA roster – primarily as Jesse Schwartzman’s backup. “That is a long involved process,“ Adams says of the Team USA tryouts. “It took a lot out of me. It was huge commitment. But even though we lost a heartbreaker to Canada in the gold medal game, it was a great experience for me.”
Will he try for the 2018 team? “I would love to be the top goalie for the biggest games – trying to win the gold for us. But I’m not sure yet.“
“I think he will be there in 2018,” says Dougherty. “I reached my peak in my early 30s, and that will be Drew’s age in three years. I know he wants that role.”
From wire to wire, Adams and the Lizards led the way in MLL this year. It started with the January trade acquiring Paul Rabil, then an 8-0 start to the all-star break and New York earning the top seed in the playoffs.
What followed on Long Island in the semifinals against Boston will simply never be forgotten. A late Boston rally – featuring two Max Seibald 2-pointers and a late John Glesener tally forced overtime – made it looked like it would be Boston and not New York advancing to Kennesaw. Boston had two golden chances to win in OT – both stopped by brilliant Adams’ saves.
“Goalie is unlike any other position in sports,” says Dougherty. “It’s like in baseball, if you have struck out 15 straight times, you still have to have the self confidence to think that the 16th time you are going to hit a home run. That was Drew in the semifinals. He had given up a few, but he had the complete belief he would stop the most important shot.” That shot turned out be Boston backup goalie Adam Ghitleman leaving his net empty to join the offensive rush. After a fabulous face dodge he came face to face with Adams to try to win the game.
“I never saw him jump in on the play,“ says Adams. “I was following the ball. All of a sudden he had it. It didn’t ever sink in in those few seconds – wow – this is the opposing goalie trying to score on me. I was just trying to stop the shot. Luckily I did . It wasn’t until Matt Gibson scored the game-winner that it really hit me. That was Ghitleman. Man, I’m glad he didn’t win the game for them. I would never have gotten over that.” Adams did score a goal himself in college – on a 10-man ride play – and has only taken one shot on net in MLL. “Ghitleman is a great athlete,“ says Adams. “He was an all-state high school running back on Long Island. I have watched the play back on video many times; it was a high-percentage play. It almost worked.” Almost.
Adams’ and Gibson’s heroics led the Lizards to Kennesaw for their first title game appearance since 2010.
And like the semifinal win over Boston, the Lizards did not get off to a great start. Rochester led 6-2 after the first quarter before a furious Lizard second-quarter rally made it 8-7 Rochester at the half. It was back and forth until the start of the fourth, when Rattlers’ star attackman Jordan Wolf scored to make it 12-11 Rattlers. Rochester would not score again, but not due to a lack of chances. The best came from Rochester attackman Mark Matthews on an EMO midway through the fourth with the Rattlers down 13-12.
“Drew galvanized our defense and our team,” says Lizards coach Joe Spallina. “Everything is different when you have a goalie like him. He had so many momentum-changing saves right until the end; that save on Matthews won the game for us.” It turned out to be the Rattlers’ last gasp. Tommy Palasek and Rabil added insurance tallies for New York, and for the first time since 2003, the Cup was headed back to Hempstead. In the end, Adams had 11 saves; Rabil was game MVP with six points, and Gurenlian went 25-of-30 on face-offs with 11 ground balls. “So many players sacrificed for that title,” says Adams. “It wasn’t just about Paul Rabil, Rob Pannell, and Beast. We had every piece in place to win it. It was such a relief.”
So what does he tell young lacrosse players he works with? “First of all, I tell them to enjoy the moment — to love the game.
“I know kids who have made their college choice in middle school, before they even know where they are going to high school. That is ridiculous. I tell parents that as well. Slow down;let your kid enjoy what makes lacrosse so great. There is plenty of time for college recruiting when you are in high school.“
Finding the next Drew Adams is no easy matter. “Out of every 100 kids we work with at camps, 98 want to be the next Paul Rabil; they want to shoot the ball 100 MPH,” he says. “It takes a special kid to want to be an elite goalie. It takes a really mentally strong kid. That’s so important.”
So how about the future? Adams knows with the expansion Blaze starting play next year, the expansion draft, trades, injuries, and the collegiate draft may drastically alter the Lizards look in 2016. “Every season before this was so frustrating,” Adams says. “Before this year I thought this could be my last season. But now that we have won it, there is a real challenge to defend the Cup.” It’s a good problem to have, for the Lizards and for Adams. Finally.
Adams is a champion. The quest that started in Philly back in the eighth grade is finally over. Drew Adams has his Steinfeld Cup.