ANNAPOLIS --- RJ Wickham jumped into his father's car five years ago just minutes after receiving his first high school lacrosse jersey.
Wickham, then a freshman at Penn Yan Academy, was following star goalie Brett Queener. His coach, presumably looking to uphold tradition, gave Wickham the same number as Queener, who later made a name for himself at Albany.
"I had the jersey in my hand," Wickham said. "It had No. 23. I said, 'You know what, Brett Queener is awesome, but I want to be my own guy.' So I went back I and told my coach, I want another number."
And so Wickham arrived at Navy four years later with a couple things --- plenty of time wearing No. 3, and experience of playing every bit as well as a notable predecessor.
With the Midshipmen, Wickham didn't evoke thoughts of the guys who played just before him. But the aggressive, babyfaced sophomore has done something else with his play this season --- prompt comparisons with Matt Russell, who led Navy to the national title game in 2004.
"He looks like him," Navy coach Richie Meade said. "He plays like him. He's got some fire in him."
And he's a big reason the Mids (6-7) have a chance to win the Patriot League tournament this weekend and advance to the NCAA tournament for the seventh consecutive season.
The goalie on that team? Yep, it was Russell, who isn't a bad guy to emulate even for someone who is already on his way to becoming the next great Navy goalie.
"I’d like to follow in Matt Russell’s footsteps," said Wickham, whose team meets Lafayette in today's semifinals in West Point, N.Y.
Wickham wasn't completely unknown coming into the season. He was the second of three goalies Navy used during last year's carousel in the cage, starting six games (almost entirely against conference competition) before giving way to Tommy Phelan once April hit.
Meade looked at his team and was sure it was facing a crucial juncture. The Mids were 6-3 at the time, coming off a loss to Colgate, and staring at a stretch against Georgetown, Maryland, Army and Johns Hopkins. Relying on a plebe, even one as talented as Wickham, was dicey.
So the change was made, and Phelan played well while leading Navy to a conference title. But whenever goalies are involved, there's always questions about how they'll mentally handle getting yanked.
With Wickham, it wasn't a problem.
"I think coach Meade felt I was pressed," Wickham said. "That’s what he said to me --- he felt I was pressed by school and plebe responsibilities. It’s hard jumping in there and being the guy as a freshman, as a plebe. I respect coach’s decision and I’ll go by what he says ... What are you going to do at that point? When you get pulled, it makes you want to work that much harder. So this fall, it was just ‘All right, I'm determined to go get this spot again.'"
He fended off junior Mike Haas for the starting gig, then went about putting his own stamp on the Navy defense. With a close defense featuring both youth (sophomore Matt Vernam) and first-time starters (Michael Hirsch and Gordon Lawson), Wickham grew into the anchor Navy needed.
Wickham is second in the country in save percentage (.615), and his 174 saves are the most for a Mid since Mickey Jarboe had 215 in 1999.
He also made six saves in the second half on Saturday as the Mids toppled Johns Hopkins for the first time since 1974.
"He's become the guy we hoped he was going to become," Meade said. "He's actually better than I thought he was going to be right now. Last year, it's awful tough to play here as a plebe. I think we tried to rush him, because we saw all his potential. You've got to grow a potato a certain way. You can't just get it when you want it."
Crazy, but just in control
When senior defensive midfielder Jaren Woeppel tried to come up with a perfect Wickham story, he started laughing before even telling it.
"I’m naturally crazy and weird," Wickham said. "A lot of the guys think I'm one of the weirdest people."
It isn't so much quirks and superstitions as it is general goofiness --- and it serves him well on the field.
Rather than scream at a defender after a busted play, he might wryly joke it might be a good idea to cover the guy the next time around.
It is his own style, and it was much easier to establish it this season than when he was a freshman.
"You could see it developing and growing," Woeppel said. "Now, he’s very assertive out there. He knows what everybody is supposed to do. He knows the defense. He’s coming into that role more and more. He’s running the show. Any quarterback, any goalie, you have to make it yours if it’s going to work. He’s a great stopper. That’s what it comes down to."
It also helps to possess a personality with both the flightiness and intensity most great goalies enjoy.
Woeppel recalled a trip into downtown Annapolis after a snowstorm this year when the roads weren't fully cleared. Wickham was joking around and slipped, sending his shoes flying into a snowbank. He cracked up, retrieved his shoes and hat as if nothing had happened and kept trudging down the street.
"He’s probably the littlest kid I know, personality-wise," Woeppel said. "It’s not that he’s immature, but he bounces around, back and forth. Different things. It’s interesting, to say the least. I’d definitely say he has the personality maybe of an eighth-grader. That might be generous. That’s not to say he’s not mature, but he’s funny."
Maybe that's why he'll regularly race toward midfield once or twice a game, much like Queener did, in hopes of catching an opponent off guard. Or perhaps it is why, in a Russell-like manner, he'll thread the needle on an outlet pass to start a fast break.
About the only thing completely predictable about Wickham is he'll make saves (he's had at least as many saves as goals allowed in all 13 games this season).
"My high school coach always told me to play completely out of control, but you have to be just under control," Wickham said. "I like to get out there and playing like that."
It's his own style and his own way --- which is all Wickham ever wanted, anyway.