The press walked down below the Carrier Dome stands and into the interview room, awaiting the Virginia contingent's arrival. The Wahoo’s had just knocked off No. 1 Syracuse. As the victors immerged, Shamel Bratton sat right of Dom Starsia. Danny Gladding and goalie Adam Ghitelman sat to their coach’s left.
Still in uniform, the keeper was asked about a save he made in the third quarter. Syracuse had an unsettled situation that ended with senior Kenny Nims alone on the doorstep with Ghitelman. Nims faked left, right, up, and down, and then the goalie stuffed his shot.
“World of difference from last year?” Ghitelman was asked. “Yes sir,” he replied with a nod. Through 11 games the Cavaliers are 11-0 and ranked No. 1. Ghitelman has been a key part of that, stopping 65-percent of shots thrown his way. What a world of difference.
Ghitelman was one of the last players out of the postgame locker room. Virginia had just suffered its first loss of the 2008 season, 13-7, at Maryland. It was the sixth time the Cavaliers allowed double-digit goals in 10 games. Just a freshman, Ghitelman was coming off a season where his Cold Spring Harbor High Seahawks allowed 10 goals just once in 19 games. There was even a shutout in that mix.
It was a rude welcome to college lacrosse.
“Throughout the process you saw a guy that was really struggling to make it happen, and he had some good games in there,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “It wasn’t as if he played terribly. He just seemed so overburdened at the end of the [Maryland] game. He just looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
Starsia decided it was time for a change.
The Virginia coaching staff had a tough decision from the start of the 2008 season. The Wahoos needed a new goalie in the beginning, but they had several options. The two most obvious were Bud Petit and Adam Ghitelman. Petit was a fifth-year senior and former U-19 National Team member. Ghitelman was the nation’s top goalie recruit and the rising keeper for the 2008 U-19 Team. The position battle ended when Petit sat down with Starsia early in the spring.
“The day we made the decision to go with Adam, I called Bud into my office because I wanted him to hear it from me first,” the coach said. “Before I got it out of my mouth, Bud said to me, ‘Hey Dom, he’s really good.’”
Petit had no problem with the choice, calling the freshman’s play in practice “phenomenal.” But that was only practice. Being the starting goalie for one of the nation’s premiere programs carries a different burden. That weight is enhanced with UVa’s style of play – one that puts the goalie in demanding situations.
The freshman handled that pressure well in his debut, stopping nine of 16 shots against Drexel in the 2008 opener. But as the season wore on, more goals began to find the twine.
“Teams started to figure him out and where they could shoot on him, and I think it became overwhelming,” Petit said. “There was a lot of pressure on him because he was 18, 19 years old in a huge spot.”
Being scored on was a new experience for Ghitelman. For a high school goalie, giving up five goals was a lot, Petit said. When that number starts to routinely double in college it can be hard on the goalie’s psyche. Ghitelman did his best to fight back, watching extra film and working hard in practice. But in doing so, he also got inside his own head.
“I was thinking way too much how I was standing, what my form was and all of that stuff during the game,” Ghitelman said. “You just need to go out and play. You can’t really indulge too much in the mental part of being a goalie because it is such a mentally straining position.”
Ghitelman admitted that after the Maryland game he felt the defense still wasn’t coming together as a whole. With mounting strain on his freshman goalie, Starsia decided it was time for something new. The Monday after the Terrapins loss, Ghitelman arrived at practice and was told by an assistant that the team was ‘going to test out some other options in goal this week.’ Petit started the next game against North Carolina and stayed in net the rest of the year.
“I think, frankly, when we first made the move he was a little bit relieved,” Starsia said of the rookie. “I don’t know if he’d ever admit to that, but I thought he was a little bit relieved to get a break.”
Starsia’s decision was right, though it did leave the young goalie a bit conflicted.
“I can’t say it was a relief to be put on the bench,” Ghitelman said.
But while the keeper didn’t use the word relief, he did say he definitely got more sleep the night before games, and Petit said his teammate started playing 100 times better in practice. Ghitelman’s mother, Valarie, called the benching a ‘minor little setback,’ confident her son would rebound. Adam would do just that…all in good time.
The tables had been turned in Charlottesville. Bud Petit was a fifth-year senior. What was he doing on the sidelines cheering on the freshman that took his final chance to be UVa’s starting goalie? Petit could have walked out the door. In fact, he almost did.
“Adam’s just such a great kid,” Petit said. “He was probably my biggest supporter through that first two months where he started. I probably would have quit the team if it wasn’t for him. If Adam was a little more immature, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to stick around.”
That relationship was a two-way street. Petit supported Ghitelman and Ghitelman Petit.
The duo used to go to practice an hour early once a week just to talk. They’d talk about anything – girls, lacrosse, whatever.
“First of all we wanted to make sure we’d remain friends,” Petit said. “A lot of times we wouldn’t talk about lacrosse really. The other part of the conversation was how do we make each other better?”
The relationship between the two never changed when the goalie switch occurred. The only difference was that now Ghitelman was cheering for Petit, not visa-versa. Starsia said the move created a situation where Ghitelman had to instantly grow up. After Petit had been so supportive of the freshman, it was only right for the rookie to return the favor.
“There’s no argument to not be supportive of Bud,” Starsia said. “Their chemistry had a lot to do with our success last year because everybody was watching it.”
The Wahoos would go 5-3 with Petit in net. Two of those losses came to Duke. The third was that double overtime thriller against Syracuse in the Final Four. All the while, Ghitelman was preparing for the day he’d be able to land back between the pipes.
The Canadians pushed the United States to its limit. The U-19 National Team needed five goals in less than seven minutes just to force overtime against their northern neighbors at the World Championships in British Columbia. The defense in that game was led by Ghitelman and his 24 saves.
Fast forward to the tournament championship. The US faced the Canadians again and Ghitelman was back in net. This time things went easier for the Americans, winning 19-12. Ghitelman provided another solid outing, tallying 19 saves in the victory. After the tournament, the rising sophomore wasn’t named best recruit or top freshman. He was named All-World, the best 19-year-old goalie on the planet.
“I kind of got a fresh experience playing with the USA Team,” Ghitelman said. “I got to erase everything that happened the past year.”
Ghitelman’s mother said she saw her son’s confidence strengthen and grow as well.
“Nothing was stopping him,” Valarie Ghitelman said. “He just jumped right back in the saddle. He was extremely passionate about being on that team. And just playing with a group of kids that are such amazing lacrosse players, that in and of itself makes you rise up.”
Starsia had been initially concerned with his goalie playing for Team USA, but in hindsight, he agrees how good the experience turned out to be. He said that for Ghitelman to go out and play as well as he did, especially in the final, most certainly went a long way in restoring his confidence.
But Ghitelman didn’t just finish his summer when the U-19’s were over. He continued to push himself back home on Long Island, working at the Institute 3E in Huntington, NY. Ghitelman says he added to his speed, strength, and agility, and did work with his hamstrings as well.
Amidst all the extra training, Ghitelman wasn’t just growing as a lacrosse player. Now a sophomore in the 2008 fall, Ghitelman lost three friends in the same November week.
“To have three deaths in the same weekend,” Ghitelman said, “It’s something that no person should ever experience. It was a terrible, terrible time in my life. It definitely helped me grow up and become a man.”
Back on the lacrosse field in the 2009 spring, Adam Ghitelman is once again the starting goalie for UVa. But things are different this year. Not as many high shots hit the back of the net. Teams scoring goals doesn’t bother him as much, and his save percentage is up 15 points. He’s gone from a player that could keep Virginia in games, to a player that could one day win a game for his team.
Coach Starsia pointed out the Vermont win as one where Ghitelman’s play was crucial. The final score of that game was 16-4 and Ghitelman’s 10 saves stopped more than 80 percent of the shots he faced. Starsia said the final score wasn’t really indicative of how the first half played. He said if Ghitelman doesn’t make a couple early saves, all of a sudden the score goes to 6-5 or 5-4 at halftime and the Catamounts have a chance for the upset.
“He would come over and talk to me at times with an air of confidence that he probably just never had as a freshman,” Starsia said. “He’s become a leader on a veteran team.”
That’s a veteran team with the likes of senior Mike Timms, junior Ryan Nizolek, and junior Ken Clausen all playing in front of the sophomore keeper. Ghitelman’s also impressed his predecessor, Petit, having watched a couple games.
“He’s matured beyond belief from where he played last year,” Petit said. “He’s more confident in just being out there.”
“He said I know what I am, and I know what I’m capable of,” Ghitelman said, “and I’m going to prove it.”