Ever since Zachary Oliveri started playing lacrosse as a first grader, his position as starting goalkeeper has always been a sure thing.
He was an all-county player each of his four years at Connetquot High School in New York, and set the school record for career save percentage (67 percent) on his way to All-American status and team Most Valuable Player honors.
But as the abilities of his opponents improve as the redshirt freshman transitions to the collegiate level, so does the competition for the starting job. And for the first time in his life, Oliveri is being forced to battle for the top spot.
But this time it’s for a position he’s been dreaming of holding since he first arrived on campus: starting goalie for the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team.
Standing between Oliveri and his dream job is junior Reed Goodhue, whom he has been battling with throughout the preseason for that coveted spot. Although the situation is one that Oliveri isn’t accustomed to, it’s been one he’s fully embraced.
“It’s a new thing for me, but I think it helps build my character,” he said. “It helps build anyone’s character when they’re fighting for a spot. All of the guys on the team are coming from superior spots previously in high school.”
Oliveri knew it was going to be him and Goodhue fighting to be that next man in line once former goalie Tim McCormack’s career ended at the conclusion of last season. Despite this inevitable reality, the goalies have never let it affect their friendship, according to Oliveri, and instead they’ve been pushing one another to constantly get better.
“Having a guy like Reed who’s a best friend of mine, we just keep working hard together,” Oliveri said. “We go up in the gym together, we do extra stuff together. It’s not like we hate each other, we’re just trying to get each other better and just accepting who’s the guy and backing them up.”
UMass coach Greg Cannella has yet to name who his starting goalie will be when the Minutemen open the season against Army on Sunday. But Oliveri appears to be the front-runner after seeing three quarters of action compared to Goodhue’s one in UMass’ 14-7 win in an exhibition game against Siena last Saturday.
Despite not having a definitive answer, Oliveri likes his chances.
“It hasn’t really been clear,” Oliveri said. “I think it’s more impression because I think he’s trying to keep my mindset level so I can keep working hard. Me and Reed keep pushing back on one another just to get better as a unit because if both of us are good on both ends of practice then the whole team’s gonna be good.”
Cannella has especially liked overseeing the competition from a coach’s standpoint and said both goalies have qualities that make them ideal candidates for the job.
What makes Oliveri stand out despite his relatively young age is his experience, both as a redshirt last year and as the starting goalie for the United States Under-19 Men’s National Team, which captured the goal medal in the Federation of International Lacrosse U-19 World Championships in Finland over the summer.
Oliveri was a captain on that team, and recorded five saves in two quarters of play, allowing just two goals in a 10-8 U.S. victory over Canada in the gold medal game.
Although Cannella likes both goalies, he feels its best for his team to settle on one or the other to become the full-time starter rather than make them battle it out every week throughout the season.
“We’re not into the (concept of) splitting goalie time,” Cannella said. “You hope you can give one of those guys a shot and have them prove it consistently, not only to us in practice but to us in games and go from there.”
Big shoes to fill
If Oliveri can complete the challenge of earning the starting job, he’ll have an even greater task ahead of him: trying to fill the large shoes of McCormack.
McCormack finished last season with a 7.1 goals-against average and his 60.6 save percentage was good for second in the nation. While Oliveri is aware of the void he’ll be asked to fill, he doesn’t plan on letting it affect him.
Former UMass goalie and current assistant coach Doc Schneider, who Oliveri idolizes, has instructed him to simply be himself out there and not think of it as filling McCormack’s shoes because then he’ll be playing mind games with himself.
“I just try to stay within myself and trust my teammates, trust the great defense I have and just play my game and have fun,” Oliveri said.
The redshirt experience
Oliveri couldn’t have asked for a more ideal situation as a redshirt last season.
He was pushed throughout the year by Schneider to stay in shape and keep working hard, but he also had the chance to learn from one of the top goalies in the nation.
McCormack became an idol of Oliveri’s throughout the experience, and the two still talk to this day. He said he learned some of the “little things” from McCormack that’ll help make him better as a player and a person, and hopes to emulate McCormack’s easy-going approach to game day.
“I like to get a little pumped up, but sometimes I kind of get too pumped up,” Oliveri said. “To see how relaxed he was, and how he worked out all week and that game day was easy for him and it was just another day for him, that’s the one thing I learned and I’m trying to keep that going just to keep myself relaxed.”
The redshirt experience also served as a confidence builder for Oliveri. He now has that first experience as an athlete on the collegiate level out of the way, and can simply focus on improving as a player.
“With confidence, you’re gonna be a better player overall,” Oliveri said. “I’ve learned a lot, corrected a lot of mistakes in my game, but in the end it’s really just building confidence.”
‘Nerves are good’
Oliveri doesn’t know for certain that he’ll be in the cage on Sunday, but he already knows he’s going to be nervous.
The process he’s going through is one he’s dreamed of since he first picked up a lacrosse stick and knows that a little anxiety won’t hurt his game.
“Nerves are good, it means you’re ready,” he said.
Oliveri’s biggest challenge as a freshman goalie will be to come in and establish himself as a leader with so many upperclassmen in front of him. While that may seem like a problem for most, Oliveri likes having that “security blanket” in a high-powered offense led by Will Manny, and a reliable defense in front of him.
Most importantly, he has the trust of his teammates.
“He’s one of the best ball stoppers I’ve seen, I think, ever,” Manny said. “We need him to just play confident … We just need him to play.”
When Oliveri gets the call to protect the UMass net for the first time in his career, the most important part will be focusing on making that first save. That, however, is something Manny is quite confident that he’ll do.
“I’m going to be watching and ready for that ball to be up and out,” Manny said, “because I’m pretty sure he’s going to save that first ball.”
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.