Maryland freshman goalie Brian Ruppel needed to watch the replays like everyone else to know what body part he used.
Lucky for him, the 7-second, unbelievable three-stop sequence in overtime of the Terps’ clash last Saturday at top-ranked Virginia went searingly viral.
He was wondering mostly about the last — and most spectacular — save. Turns out, as he stretched high to match sticks on the crease with Cavaliers midfielder Evan Zinn, the ball hit three different things. First, by Ruppel’s design, a piece of his stick head; then, because of gravity, his left elbow; and finally, because of instinct, his left knee.
“That’s kind of what it looked like,” Ruppel, the former Catonsville High three-sport star, said Wednesday from College Park. “Whatever it hit, I was glad it was there.”
The video of his sprawling, lay-it-all-on-the-line performance that eventually led to then-third-ranked Maryland winning the game, 14-13, on a Daniel Kelly (Calvert Hall) goal a few moments later, has since been viewed almost 1.5 million times on TikTok. Throw in another 300,000 from Instagram, and more from wherever else, and Ruppel can forever say he went viral — while playing in a lacrosse crucible.
Ruppel, a 6-foot, 170-pound true freshman, was making his fourth college start in front of nearly 6,000 fans on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Virginia’s Klöckner Stadium against the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, one of the most high-pressure environments he might ever experience. He made 12 saves in regulation. Then, in overtime, in an unsettled situation, he first stopped a shot from Zinn from about 15 yards. After a failed clear a few seconds later, he tried to smother another good look from closer range, which created a rebound opportunity on the grass in front of him.
As much as he knew, someone wearing a white Virginia uniform grabbed the ball and tried a quick, high shot. In an instant, Ruppel rose from the ground, and stretched high toward the right pipe. With his stick, he caught a piece of the ball, which then redirected off his elbow and dangerously fluttered toward the crease for a potential game-winning goal. At which point, all in milliseconds, Ruppel kicked his left leg like it were an engine piston, and the ball glanced off his sweatpants (a traditional goalie thing). Short-stick defender Nick Redd ended the madness with a ground ball scoop and sprint away from the fray.
Good luck not watching the sequence more than once. Seriously, I’d be surprised if you still had time to read the rest of this story after watching the video, but we’ll continue with more detail anyway.
A month ago, Ruppel — who played lacrosse, soccer (also as a goalie), and basketball at Catonsville — wasn’t going to play for Maryland at all this season. Coach John Tillman’s plan was to redshirt him, allowing for a mostly pressure-free year before making a run at the lineup. The Terps returned the starting goalie from last season’s unbeaten national championship team, Logan McNaney. But McNaney suffered a season-ending knee injury in Maryland’s Feb. 11 loss at Loyola.
After graduate student and Binghamton transfer Teddy Dolan made one spot-start the following week in a win over Syracuse, Tillman made the decision the following week to go with Ruppel in cage. After the announcement, Dolan gave Ruppel a hug and said “You’re ready.” “That was a super special moment,” Ruppel said. Presumably, if he played well, it would be his job for the rest of the season. And he did.
In his first career start against then-No. 4 Princeton, Ruppel made 14 saves. In a three overtime loss to then-second-ranked Notre Dame, another 12. The rookie certainly didn’t seem to crumble in big moments, and showed his mettle again on the biggest stage yet against Virginia, a team that had been averaging 20 goals per game and whose unconventional style had Tillman pouring over all kinds of details in preparation.
It may have seemed like a tall task against a threatening Virginia offense, but Ruppel had been preparing for this kind of thing for awhile. He’s watched Maryland lacrosse games for as long as he can remember. His father, Steve, is a high-level NCAA lacrosse referee, so Brian has seen a lot of action and different game scenarios too. His older brother, Stephen, played at Lynchburg from 2015 to 2018. And Ruppel has natural enough physical gifts that allowed him to be an effective midfielder during the freshman season of his high school lacrosse career at Catonsville, a team that at the time had another good, senior goalie on the roster (Ian Callinan, now a senior at York College). Ruppel led Catonsville with 31 points as a freshman, as he waited his turn to play between the pipes.
And while the broader lacrosse world, and casual sports fans who might have stumbled across the TikTok video, became aware of Ruppel over the weekend, those close to him weren’t exactly surprised by his sudden star turn, or at least the type of play that led to it.
Andrew Gvozden — co-founder of the Baltimore-based private goalie instruction business Goaliesmith, and a former All-American at Hofstra — has known Ruppel going back to 2019, when he first attended one of his goalie camps. “It’s not anything new to us,” Gvozden said in an interview this week.
When they met, there probably couldn’t have been a better match for mentor and player. Gvozden, and his brother and fellow co-founder Mike, a former Johns Hopkins goalie, were both known for their use-every-body-part-necessary styles. They were both, like Ruppel, also proud public school kids (Severna Park) from a Baltimore area dominated by private lacrosse school powers, and they carried a similar proverbial chip on their shoulders because of it. (Andrew Gvozden also unexpectedly became a starter at Hofstra his freshman year back in 2009.)
“There’s not many like us,” Gvozden said, “but we are big proponents of — when there’s 12 to 15 goalies in the MIAA [Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association], there sometimes are really good opportunities to stay local, save a couple dollars for your parents, still get a good education, but also get that valuable playing time.”
After that first season playing midfield, Ruppel got playing time as a goalie at Catonsville, but not as much as he thought. Of course, there was that one season with no games in the spring of 2020 at the start of the pandemic.
Enter the “Grit Pit,” a field in Baltimore that is in such rough shape, Gvozden said, that he doesn’t even want to disclose its specific location and never posted anything about it on social media. But it was fenced in, good for shooting practice.
During lockdowns of 2020 with nothing else to do, Gvozden gathered a bunch of local goalies there for drills and put them against high-level shooters, like eventual 2022 Tewaaraton Award winner Logan Wisnauskas and current Tewaaraton candidate, Yale senior attackman Matt Brandau, who both played at Boys’ Latin.
The socially distanced practice grew into a thing. Three to four times per week, current and future Division I goalies such as Noah Klein (Gilman, Georgetown), Jackson Marshall (Maryland), Max Watkinson (St. Paul’s, Loyola), Cardin Stoller (Boys’ Latin, Rutgers), Anthony Wilson (McDonogh, Villanova), Chris Brandau (Boys’ Latin, Dickinson), and Kyle Morris (Gilman, Virginia) gathered to take shots. Ruppel was one the younger kids in the group and his dad sometimes watched from a distance. Ruppel honed his craft in an incubator of starting goalies from the MIAA.
Today, when asked about Ruppel’s strength as a goalie aside from his athleticism, Gvozden says both he and McNaney, who started the Terps’ season in goal: “Lateral movement. Those guys don’t step out and attack or get caught out of position. They are always set on their line and looking patient and limiting how much they have to step. They’re good at the all or nothing split-save as well, but these shots from deep that you’re seeing them gobble up all look routine because they’re playing efficiently. They’re not moving before the shot. There’s a lot of poise and control in how they make saves and the way the navigate the cage and reposition as the ball moves around.”
The summer before his junior year, Ruppel’s reputation grew as he caught attention while playing for the Roughriders, the local club program in which he started playing goalie. He moved up Inside Lacrosse’s recruiting rankings, eventually becoming the third-ranked in his class at his position, and landing at his dream school in College Park.
Tillman FaceTimed Ruppel shortly after midnight on Sept. 1, 2020, the first time Division I coaches were allowed to contact recruits from that year’s junior class. As a senior, he was an Under Armour All-American and helped Catonsville to an 18-1 record and an appearance in the state semifinals.
Fast forward to being thrust into Maryland’s starting lineup last month, then staring down the top offense in the country last week. “The game’s a lot faster, obviously, coming from high school to college,” Ruppel said, “but I think the guys, the whole team, help you kind of slow down, make decisions and see the ball.”
He did that, and then some on Saturday, especially the last one. Lamenting the defensive breakdown that led to the spree of Virginia scoring chances, Tillman said on Thursday, “Luckily, Brian bailed us out.”
“He got his leg on it,” Gvozden said. “The reason why I like it so much is one of the things we tell our goalies to do is use every single body part to make saves. It reminded me of when a hockey goalie sometimes has to stack their pads, and flip on their back and kick their legs up to cover the top shelf of the cage.”
He said he probably watched the clip 25 times.
“I’m so happy for Brian,” Gvozden said. “He has so worked so, so hard to be in the position to make those types of saves. He’s seen thousands of shots from different angles. It’s cool to see the validation of a kid’s hard work pay off, and that’s going to serve him, more than any clip that millions of views of gets. The hard work he put in as a young kid will carry over through not just lacrosse, but his life.”
Games to watch
The now second-ranked Maryland men (5-2) host No. 9 Penn State (5-2) at 5 p.m. Saturday in both teams’ Big Ten opener.
No. 8 Johns Hopkins (7-3) is at Michigan (4-3) at 7 p.m. Saturday. No. 10 Loyola (5-2, 2-0 Patriot League) faces a test at Army (6-1, 3-0) at noon Saturday.
The No. 9 Loyola women (6-2, 1-0 Patriot League) are also on the road, at Boston University (6-2, 1-1) at noon Saturday. The No. 10 Maryland women, now 8-3 and winners of five straight, are off this weekend, and host Princeton (3-3, 0-1 Ivy League) Wednesday.
Ruppel’s final save against Virginia also drew comparisons to one made in a big spot by former Maryland goalie Kyle Bernlohr in overtime of an epic 2016 national championship game.
North Carolina won the game, 14-13, yet Bernlohr’s save is etched in the memories of anyone who saw it. (I described it at the time as a “gravity-defying stop that looked as if Bernlohr netted a striped bass from over his right shoulder.”)
“I remember watching that save, too,” Ruppel said. “It’s something that’s kind of always inspired me. I’ve always looked up to [Kyle] for sure.”
Corey McLaughlin is a veteran writer and editor who has covered sports in Baltimore for a decade, including for Baltimore magazine, USA Lacrosse Magazine and several other publications.