April 25, 2007

McMonagle Reflects On Strategy, Career

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Men’s lacrosse senior co-captain Matt McMonagle didn’t wake up one morning knowing he wanted to be a goalie. He didn’t have a vision that compelled him to stand between the pipes, nor was he simply born knowing there was no other place for him on the field other than defending the curtain of chain-link string.
“I was always the fat kid,” he said. “So they put me in goal.”
He played goalie in soccer, goalie in water polo — he was even a catcher when he played little league baseball. How the tables have turned, though.
[img_assist|nid=23156|title=Protect this house|desc=Senior co-captain Matt McMonagle has received the most media attention of his career this year as arguably the best goalie in the nation.|link=node|align=left|width=100|height=69]“I think the only guy on the team who weighs less than me is [sophomore] Christian Pastrick,” he said. “I bench … well, I’m not the worst on the team. I’m more of a legs guy.”
Indeed, when McMonagle (listed at 165 pounds in the media guide) walks into a post-game press conference and sits down next to his teammates, one might wonder if he should be on the other side asking the questions.
All it takes, though, is a game like last Saturday’s 19-save performance in a 10-6 win over Princeton, to see that McMongale really belongs nowhere else but in front of the goal.
Hidden in the gaudy save statistics were the little things McMongale did that have earned him a reputation as an aggressive goal-keeper. Not only was he snagging shots from his ankles to above his head, he was deflecting them, and chasing balls down beyond the crease. He was ranging out of the net to pick up a loose ball or intercept a pass.
On one play the ball was rocketed to his left side, about shoulder high. His stick swung like a pendulum to deflect it straight up in the air. As a group of orange clad Princeton attackers swarmed under the ball like infielders waiting for a pop fly to come down, McMonagle wandered behind the cage and carefully plucked it out of the air with his oversized pocket.
“I definitely don’t come out as much as, say the Albany goalie [Brett Queener],” McMongale said. “As the years have progressed, though, I’ve realized that there are a lot of situations where you can come out and if you pick off a pass or get a ground ball you can cut down on their opportunities.”
Goalies are inherently at a disadvantage in any sport — forever reacting to the attacks of others. Therefore, McMonagle insists, goalies must gain every possible advantage, even if it means resorting to trying to simply surprise the attacker by coming out of the net.
“It makes them beat you with a good shot,” he said. “I’m getting crafty in my old age.”
Even though McMongale can’t place a finger on any particular origin of his style, he can more closely pinpoint the origin of his emotional style on the playing field. Early in his career, McMonagle was easily derailed by a few goals getting by him, having trouble separating his frustration from feelings of betrayal by his defense.
“The coaches keept working with me and kept hammering the fact [that you can’t get mad at the defense after a goal],” McMonagle said. “If the defense gives up a bad shot they’re doing their best already. It’s not like they’re hanging me out to dry. I just have to understand that they’re busting their tails and if the offense makes a good play it’s going to happen sometimes. Being able to understand the experience of how hard they’re working gives me a better perspective.”
It is an understanding that McMonagle has gained over his four years at Cornell, but even more closely this year, living with fellow co-captain, senior Mitch Belisle. The two live in a house that includes seven total seniors — Brian Clayton, Henry Bartlett, Tim Randall, Todd Olson and Matt Robbins in addition to Belisle and McMonagle. McMonagle said living with his No. 1 marker, as well as some of Belisle’s fellow defenders in Olson and Robbins, does help better the communication on the field.
“It just helps all of us have a great relationship when we see each other off the field,” he said. “It helps living with the guys because you get to know them on different level.”
Not to mention having six guys who are all on the same odd schedule that college sports dictates.
“You can’t say how valuable that is,” he said. “It’s not like your roommate’s going out on a Friday night, coming home at three, and waking you up.”
This past summer, McMongale also gained some insight into his mental approach when he got a chance to take on some of his lacrosse idols as he was the net-minder for the Upstate Collegiate All-Stars when they took on Team USA (as one article put it, “a contingent of local players who will portray the Washington Generals to the United States National Team’s Harlem Globetrotters”).
“I made a couple of saves,” he joked, estimating he gave up around 18-20 goals. “Before hand, I was kind of nervous. But once the game started I realized that I don’t have to do anything too drastic or differently and just play my game — be who I am.”
It is this calm that has transformed McMongale into one of the nation’s best goaltenders. And with that reputation has come a bevy of media attention which peaked last week leading up the Princeton matchup — at times played off as a battle between McMonagle and Tiger goalie Alex Hewit, also considered one of the top net-minders in the country. While McMongale admitted that last year the media attention going into the Princeton tilt might have gotten in his head a bit, he was more used to it this year.
“[My parents] actually love it a ton more than I do,” he said. “Not that I don’t like talking to the media. But it’s not like I would go out of my way to [get media attention]. It’s more of a benefit for my parents and people that knew me in high school or former coaches or alumni. It makes them proud, so that’s a positive.”
Newspapers like the Syracuse Post-Standard, magazines like Inside Lacrosse and even websites like espn.com, have profiled McMongale. Each story loves to highlight McMonagle’s divergence form the typical collegiate lacrosse player — everything from his scrawny build to the fact that he’s a physics major with an art history minor on a team of Applied Economics and Management majors. Last summer he split time between playing recreational lacrosse and an internship in the conservation department of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a field he hopes to continue in after graduation. He’s so humble, the stories say, he’s so down to earth. McMonagle said he hasn’t even thought about it, though.
“I don’t try to put on any façade or anything. I just try to be honest and open. A lot of my friends give me a hard time about it and it helps me stay grounded. Soaking it in is part of the experience of my four years here, though.”
For now, McMonagle would settle for just focusing on finishing off his senior year memorably.
“It’s changed a little in terms of being a senior and having a little more urgency,” he said.