Niko Amato was considered the Chesapeake Bayhawks' backup goaltender heading into the 2018 season. Then, with his team down against the Charlotte Hounds on May 3 and starter Brian Phipps injured, Amato took his place in net for the second half. He wouldn't relinquish the starter's spot for the remainder of the season. The fifth-year pro ended up earning eight wins with a 12.37 goals against average, earning co-Brine Goalie of the Year honors.
The University of Maryland alum recently re-signed with the Bayhawks on a three-year deal. Amato, a Pennsylvania native, not only relishes the chance to play in the league he grew up watching, but to also play close to his college team. In his own words, he describes why he loves Major League Lacrosse and how he has made the most of every opportunity in his lacrosse career.
You mentioned recently that you grew up watching the MLL. What are some of your memories of watching the league, and how did it inspire you as a young lacrosse player?
When I first started playing lacrosse in my neighborhood, they urged us to check out the 2003 MLL Championship at Villanova. The Bayhawks played against the Lizards and the field was full of stars. At that point, I knew I was immediately hooked on lacrosse. In 2004, I became a season ticket holder for the Philadelphia Barrage. I can still remember being a little middle schooler running around Villanova trying to figure out all the little nuances about the sport. I was initially drawn to the equipment because I always played football and it had a sleeker look. I found the lifestyle of the players intriguing and I thought it was cool the way they carried themselves. I was just starting to learn the game itself. It was exciting to have a franchise move to the city and play locally at Villanova University. My cousin and I would often go to the games and watch, try to interact with the players, and play at the competition tents.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in your lacrosse career? How did you address or overcome it?
Every time I reach a new level of the sport, I’ve faced the challenge of sharpening my skills and making sure my game is up to par. I am naturally drawn to the goalie position because all of the responsibilities that come with it. I like to compare it to playing quarterback in football. Sometimes you get the credit or glory for the win, and sometimes you get the blame or shoulder the loss. When a goal goes in - typically everyone sees you. When I went from middle school to high school, I had to sit mostly all of my freshman year after scratching and clawing to make varsity. At this point, I was still trying to learn how to make every save.
In college, I redshirted my first year while I had to earn the respect of older teammates and try to win the locker room. As you get older, it becomes increasingly difficult to get older players to respect your game as a younger guy. I’ve always been under the belief that age is just a number and none of that matters on the field - the best players are going to play. My first year sitting out in college, I worked extremely hard to sharpen my stick skills and learn how to transition from a shot stopper to a shot saver. I learned that, as a goalie, you can be the last line of defense but the first guy to create offense.
After I got drafted into MLL, I did not play much my rookie season. I also might have been taking things for granted a bit after starting for four years at Maryland and having an awesome time in College Park. I played sparingly for the next three seasons - and it mentally took a toll. There were times where I did not know if I was ever going to get my chance. I sometimes wondered if my college career was “lucky” or if that was the best it was ever going to get for me. Fortunately, I had some awesome veterans in the locker room on the Bayhawks, and Coach Cottle continued to believe in me and keep me on the roster. After we lost to the Charlotte Hounds in the summer of 2016, I made a promise to myself that I was going to go “ALL IN” and commit myself to being the best. I worked extremely hard that offseason and lost 30+ pounds to make myself a better athlete. Since then, I’ve continued to work and do everything possible to be the best I can be.
What advice do you give young lacrosse players who hope to play at the college and pro levels?
I would say, first and foremost, that you have to love the game. I think you need to be a guy who is a great teammate and a leader in the locker room. You want your teammates to respect you and want to play for you. Skills can always be sharpened, but having some intangible “it” factors is what really separates goalies as they advance to each level. The difference between being a starter versus a backup versus whatever else is so slim. There are so many talented guys out there. So, in order to make it to college and the professional level, I think you have to enjoy the work, enjoy the sport, have a competitive spirit, and you have to be a guy who is accountable and respected amongst his teammates.
What is the best game, at any level, that you've ever played?
In my junior year of high school, we (LaSalle) beat Haverford School 7-6 in double overtime. We were down 6-5 with under 30 seconds left after trailing the whole game. We had a freshman attackmen Kevin Forster (Maryland/St. Joe’s) rifle a 30-yard pass to Pete Schwartz (Harvard), who blasted a 15+ yard shot in with time expiring to send it to overtime. In overtime, Randy Forster (Penn State) picked up a missed shot off the headline and beat the refs whistle to jam it into senior captain, Conrad Ridgway (Penn State), who quick-sticked the ball into the net with under a second left.
It was the most electric atmosphere I have ever seen at a high school sporting event. I remember we celebrated the win later that night by going to a Wendy’s drive-thru, eating burgers in the bed of Tucker Durkin’s (John’s Hopkins) pickup truck as we plotted out how we were going to beat Malvern Prep for the State Championship a few days later - we beat them too! The members of this team are brothers to me for life.