At Williams College, junior Sean Dougherty has crafted his identity as one of Division 3’s best goalies, an athletic, technically sound guy who battles and is a big reason his team flipped the calendar to January undefeated.
Come spring, he hopes to resume his role as the goalie on the school’s lacrosse team, though something always seems to get lost in translation.
“The first lacrosse practice I’ll end up dropping into a butterfly and the net’s six feet high,” he chuckled. “It’s actually worked out a couple times.”
Not much isn’t working these days for Dougherty and the Ephs (5-0-2, 4-0-2 NESCAC), who are setting the pace in a good conference and will step into the spotlight on Jan. 7, when they play league rival Trinity outdoors and under the lights at Fenway Park.
Much of the credit goes to the goalie, whose 1.26 goals-against average and .955 save percentage both rank among the top five nationally. He was at 1.98 and .934 as a sophomore, playing every game but three for a team that finished second to Bowdoin in the NESCAC.
“He’s technically sound and he’s an athlete,” said Williams coach Bill Kangas (South Burlington, Vt.). “He’s real tough and he’s competitive. Whether it’s a game you play in practice or a drill you’re running, he wants to stop the puck.”
“I hate losing,” said the 5-foot-10 Dougherty, “whether it’s practice and we’re doing a two-on-one drill … I just think it’s important to battle.”
That said, he also knows when he’s beaten.
A hockey player since the age of 4, he also took up lacrosse a few years later growing up on Long Island, a hotbed for the sport. He spent his first three years of high school playing both sports at Smithtown West.
“I switched to goalie my junior year,” he said. “I’d been an attackman but all the attackmen were much better than me. They were (going on to play) at Duke, Long Island, Stony Brook. I asked my coach if I could try goal and I did OK.”
He reprised that role when he went to Milton Academy, repeating his junior year. On the ice, he achieved glory as a senior, backstopping a team led by current Yale standout and Boston Bruins prospect Rob O’Gara to a New England elite title.
“Sean, when you meet him, there’s not one thing that jumps off the page,” said Milton Academy coach Paul Cannata. “At the same time, you take the sum of his parts and he is pretty special.”
After backing up standout Ryan Purdy during his freshman year at Williams, Dougherty took over the No. 1 job as a sophomore. In 27 games, his team gave up just 54 goals, but there were enough close losses in that 17-7-4 mark to keep them from collecting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
“No surprise at all,” said Cannata. “When you take a step to another level there’s going to be questions. It was pretty clear that once he took the reins as a sophomore, he was going to be pretty valuable. And he has been.”
The Ephs rank fourth in Division 3 allowing 1.29 goals a game, a credit both to the goaltender and the players in front of him, including a blue line led by David Jarrett and Brian McNamara.
“I think we have the best defense in the entire country,” said Dougherty. “We commit to team defense and blocking shots. The team makes things a lot easier for me. I’m not seeing too many odd-man rushes, too many potential breakaways.”
Dougherty spent part of the summer working on his technique in Brian Daccord’s Stop It Goaltending program. One asset is his quickness, allowing him to cover some of the inches his modest size ordinarily would not. His professional role model is Jonathan Bernier, a 6-footer who’s taken over the crease this season for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I don’t know if I necessarily look like him,” said Dougherty.
A little self-effacing humor is one way he shows off his perspective. Take a look at his relationships outside the locker room and you’ll see others.
Zach Hillard is a 7-year-old hockey fan from North Adams, Mass., who has cerebral palsy. Through the Team Impact program that’s become popular with colleges across the region, athletic teams are matched with local children who have life-threatening illnesses.
Dougherty will come out early before warm-ups for games and practices to stretch with Hillard, whose nickname is “Chief.” He takes the ice each game with “Chief” markered on the back of his helmet, and the two have formed a bond.
“He’s such a great kid and it’s such an unfortunate situation,” said Dougherty. “I just like to, in any way I can, make his day a little better.”
As a freshman, Dougherty went out for lacrosse and won the starting job, playing every game but one as the Ephs struggled to a 3-10 season. He had to sit out his sophomore spring because of a hip injury but hopes to get back on the field this year once hockey’s done.
“The reactions in lacrosse definitely help me in hockey,” he said. “I’m not sure it helps the other way around. Everything happens much differently.”
One thing that hasn’t happened yet on the ice this winter — the Ephs haven’t lost.
In the league, Williams has a recent record to envy, finishing second, fifth, second, third and third dating back to the 2008-09 season. But it hasn’t won a NESCAC title in that span nor played in an NCAA tournament; those honors have gone to Bowdoin, Amherst and Middlebury.
These days, it has a goalie to envy, too.
On and off the ice.
“Maybe you see Sean stopping all the pucks,” said Kangas, “but he’s a guy who gets along with a lot of people.”