Virginia's Cavaliers, last year's national champions, could win again, mostly because of the spectacular reflexes of their sophomore goalie.
Rodney David Rullman’s room in the Zeta Psi house at the University of Virginia seems standard in all respects: unmade bunk beds, a cluttered desk, clothes strewn about and piled high on the floor of the closet. But hiding behind the curtains at the front window is a curious artifact. It is a statue of the head of a lacrosse player set in a heavy marble base and, although it says so nowhere on the award, it was presented to Rullman three weeks ago when the Cavaliers’ star goalie unanimously was voted the most valuable player in the Hero’s Invitational Lacrosse Tournament in Baltimore.
“I’ve got it there so no one will see it and steal it,” Rullman says with characteristic disregard for the hallowed honor code of Thomas Jefferson‘s university. Moments later, however, while locking his door, he admits, “I get a lot of grief about that thing.”
Notoriety can indeed be a burden to a 19-year-old sophomore, particularly one as outwardly unassuming as Rullman. Brief mention in one national magazine last spring was sufficient fuel for his fraternity brothers. They delight in embarrassing Rullman every time he enters a room by proclaiming in stentorian tones, “I’m Roddy Rullman.” Not even offering up his lacrosse stick for the late-night rat kills in the basement of Zeta Psi can redeem him. How distressing then that Virginia‘s surprising victory in the Hero’s tournament, which sent the Cavaliers into second place in the national rankings, has been attributed largely to goaltending. How exasperating that Virginia‘s chance of repeating as national champion appears to rest largely with its 5’9″ left-handed goaltender.
But if self-confidence is not allowed to blossom in the social world of Zeta Psi, it is carefully cultivated on the lacrosse field. “A goalie has to have self-confidence bordering on cockiness,” says senior Attackman Tom Duquette. “If you’re gonna get in there and let balls be thrown at you, you gotta be confident that you can stop them.”
Confidence grows as slowly in lacrosse goalies as it does elsewhere in life, yet no one at Virginia hesitates to pinpoint the moment when Roddy Rullman got CONFIDENCE.
Virginia opened the 1972 season as the favorite for the NCAA title, but the team developed an apparent Achilles’ heel in its two freshman goalies, Rullman and Scott Howe, whom Coach Glenn Thiel alternated with little success. The Cavaliers dropped all three of their divisional games—to Johns Hopkins, Navy and Maryland—and reached the final game of the regular season against Washington and Lee needing a victory to win an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. That day Thiel handed the starting job to Rullman.
Early in the second half W&L opened a 7-3 lead and moved in for the kill. Three times in a five-second span the Generals fired point-blank shots at Rullman. The first two he blocked, the third he held onto. “Otherwise we’d have been there all day,” he says, smiling now at the memory of his ordeal. He quickly cleared that save to put sudden life into Virginia, and the Cavaliers rallied for a 10-9 victory.
“I’ve watched a lot of goalies,” says senior Defenseman Bruce Mangels, “but that sequence was incredible. He’s the quickest person I ever saw.”
1972 National Champion Virginia Men's Lacrosse Team
Underdog Virginia drew Army in the first round of the NCAAs and routed the Cadets 10-3. Rullman shut them out for the final 29 minutes, and in the midst of that stretch Cavalier Defenseman Boo Smith was shocked to hear him taunting an Army midfielder. ” ‘Shoot, you sucker,’ he yelled,” says Smith, “and the guy got so irritated he did shoot. Roddy nonchalantly saved it and ran out of the crease laughing.”
With Rullman in the goal, the Cavaliers went on to win the NCAA tournament, taking the title game from Hopkins 13-12. This year, despite losing the majority of their offense, they have opened with six straight victories, following the Hero’s tournament with easy wins at Towson State and Duke. Since Rullman gained a starting role, the Cavaliers have won 10 straight.
“I was really disappointed in myself early last year,” Rullman says now. “I was getting bombed. If you let it get to you, you might as well get out of the net. You have two choices. You can walk in the locker room and say, ‘Bad day.’ Or you can mull it over. Last year I did a lot of mulling.”
Thiel understands the problem. “A goalie needs special treatment,” he says. “He’s the last line of defense. Last year Roddy relied too heavily on his reflexes. Positioning is still the weakest part of his game, but he moves so quickly that he can compensate. And last year he didn’t run the clears the way he does now. He’s really directing the defense for us.”
Roddy’s father, who never played the game but has watched it a lot, spotted his son’s potential for the position early. “Roddy had real quick hands as a little boy,” Charles Rullman said after the Towson State game.” He was a catcher in baseball and right from the start he never blinked. He was as much at home behind the plate as he was in the living room. That’s when I began to think he might make a good goalie.”
Most lacrosse players show understandable reluctance to play in the goal. The fact that a lacrosse ball is made of rubber is no solace to anyone who has ever been hit by one. As Mangels puts it, “If I played there, I’d have bruises all over my back. Goalies are sick.” Rullman broke an eardrum blocking a shot with the side of his head in high school and in the Hero’s tournament saved a 100-mph bad-bounce scoring attempt by getting his face in front of it. (An official had to call time and pry the ball out of his mask with his stick.)
In lacrosse the goalie operates in a theater-in-the-round. The playing field extends 15 yards beyond the goal, and the least defensible scoring shot in the game comes from an opponent cutting right in front of the goal mouth and taking a feed from the area behind the goal. Since defenses are usually man-for-man, the goalie must keep constant watch on the ball while shouting its location to teammates who anticipate their men setting picks and breaking for the goal. “Roddy has a lousy Long Island accent that we kid him about,” says Mangels, “but I love to hear it during a game.”
Once a save is made, the goalie becomes an offensive player, since the clear that he initiates is supposed to move the ball to the far end of the field. Against Maryland in the finals of the Hero’s tournament, Roddy made 22 saves, 10 of them in the fourth quarter, and Virginia successfully cleared the ball 20 of 29 times. On one clearing attempt, however, Roddy dashed all the way to mid-field where he got himself trapped and suffered a blow to the back that was still bothering him the following week at Towson State. One of these days, Roddy says, he is going to go all the way downfield and score a goal.
Roddy admits that he did not actively lobby for the job as goaltender. “I got sorta suckered into it. My brother [Charles, a second-team All-America midfielder at Virginia in 1970] used to practice shooting at me when I was a kid. Then he told the junior high school coach that’s the position I wanted to play. I never said that.”
But he played goalie anyhow—well enough to make All-America at Garden City High School on Long Island. “Goals scored on him were like a personal affront,” remembers his high school coach, Julio Silvestri. “In one losing game in his senior year he got so uptight that he came out of the cage with his stick flailing.” Here he might have done well to pay heed for a change to Thomas Jefferson, who said, “When angry, count ten…; if very angry, an hundred.” But alas, as anyone within hearing range of a Virginia game can attest, he lives instead by the words of Mark Twain: “When angry, count four; when very angry, swear.”
“He’s a real competitor,” says Duquette. “Like at paddle ball. He suggested we play once and all the week before he was trying to psych me up. He wanted to give me points or play a test game to see if I really wanted to take him on, you know, so I wouldn’t have to hurt my pride if he was too good. Anyhow I took him easily. But as far as he’s concerned, I never beat him, not at anything. He just let himself be beaten, that’s all. So I still have to put up with his grief. He says I’m lucky and it won’t happen again. I guess goalies have to be that way.”
Rullman is going to have to stop almost everything if Virginia wants to repeat as national champion. Graduation cost the Cavalier offense 122 goals-and 87 assists from last season’s totals of 213 and 145, and this season several other clubs boast excellent goalies, including No. 1-ranked Johns Hopkins, whose Les Matthews was last year’s All-America. Bill O’Donnell of Maryland, Mike Emmerich of Cornell, Peter Graham of Cortland State, Skeet Chadwick of W&L, Robert Bryan of Rutgers and Joe Zaffuto of Hofstra are all superior performers.
“A lot of people have already taken the pressure of defending our title off us,” says Duquette. “They say that even though we won it last year, we graduated all those guys and there’s no way we can do it again. People really don’t know what we have here.”
What they have is Rullman and some fine players who trust him. As Smith says, “I go after attackmen now when they step back to feed, knowing that if I’m over-aggressive and lose my man Roddy will be there.”
Roddy Rullman, in short, is the anchor for his team, no mean feat under Thiel’s relaxed rule at Virginia where the Cavaliers are their own people. “We have no strict training rules,” says Rullman. “There’s nothing rigid about the coach. He tells us, ‘It’s up to you—you know what we’re shooting for.’ Some of the coaches around this place are really strict. You’d think you’re playing for ROTC or something.”
Most days Roddy is one of the last to leave the locker room after practice. The excuse is always the same: a game of soap hockey in the shower with Boo Smith. And who won the last contest? “I did,” says Smith. “Of course Roddy says he did, but he didn’t.”
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