AJ Fiore's last great save
Once benched, the senior returned to the cage in time for Cornell's title run
With sixth period finished, AJ Fiore and some of his friends had food on their minds. Since upperclassmen were allowed to leave Ithaca High School's campus during seventh and eighth periods if they didn't have class, the group hopped into a car and made their way to the nearby Wegmans grocery store for a pre-lacrosse practice snack.
As they were getting ready to sit down at the store to dive into their food, Fiore's cell phone went off. On the other end was a representative from Under Armour. Fiore, a senior, had been selected to compete in the 2009 Under Armour All-American game.
"My jaw dropped," remembers Fiore. "It was hard to kind of contain my excitement on the phone."
Fiore quickly dialed his mother to relay the news. He was so excited, though, that he almost accidentally dialed the Under Armour representative back. Being named an All-American in lacrosse was another bullet point on the talented high schooler's athletic resume.
A five-time letterman in hockey, he played goalie as a sophomore on the Little Red's team that won the state championship. On the lacrosse field, he was his team's most valuable player as a goalie for three seasons and helped Ithaca beat perennial national power West Genesee in the 2009 New York public state tournament.
Four years later, Fiore is a senior and a driving force in Cornell's run to Championship Weekend. The road to Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field, however, was a rollercoaster ride for Fiore.
Fiore almost didn't make it to Cornell. In high school, he fell in love with Johns Hopkins University and decided to play for the Blue Jays. But the day before Fiore was going to inform Johns Hopkins head coach Dave Pietramala of his decision, Fiore's parents asked him to give Cornell one last chance.
"He was a guy that we had our eye on for quite a while, and we recruited him hard," says Cornell head coach Ben DeLuca, who was an assistant coach for the Big Red at the time. "We really wanted to try and keep him home."
Fiore changed his mind, deciding to play for the hometown team, and came to Cornell with the opportunity to earn immediate playing time. "As a freshman, he came in and he was fearless," DeLuca recalls.
Two days before Cornell's season opener against Hobart, a snowstorm chased the team into one of the school's indoor practice facilities. Then-head coach Jeff Tambroni was warming Fiore up prior to the start of practice when he delivered some news: Fiore was the team's starter. It took a second for the freshman to process everything.
"And then it hit me that I was going to be starting at a Division I program, and the butterflies kinda kicked in," says Fiore.
Fiore earned most of the starts his freshman season, including in Cornell's brief run in the NCAA tournament. The Big Red beat Loyola and Army before running into Notre Dame and the Irish's methodical offense. Cornell lost, and Fiore experienced his first taste of real athletic disappointment.
"At the time, it hurt," says Fiore. "But I think coming back, it was able to give us a lot of experience."
It was valuable personal experience for Fiore, too. Through high school, he had been among New York's most decorated prep players and mostly immune to struggles. As a sophomore at Cornell, that would change.
After the season ended in a quarterfinal upset to Virginia, Fiore put his stick away and didn't accompany his family on their annual trek to Championship Weekend to watch lacrosse's Final Four. A frustrating season left him burnt out.
Even though Fiore improved his goals-allowed average from 8.69 to 8.31 as a sophomore, his save percentage nosedived from 54.5 percent to 50.4. DeLuca cited lapses in concentration. Teammate Rob Pannell agreed.
"You definitely can tell when he's seeing the ball and when he's not," says Pannell. "He's stepping towards it when he's seeing it, he's tracking it with his stick and his eyes, and there'll be other times where the ball will go by him and he won't even move."
Going into his junior fall in 2012, the issue got worse. Plays Fiore used to make no longer came easily. "I was going into practice like, 'I don't know if I'm going to make a save today,'" says Fiore.
Said DeLuca: "I think AJ just got into a funk."
Suddenly the decorated prep star, the same player who started in Cornell's cage as a freshman, was benched. Sophomore Andrew West, a backup the previous season, earned starts, as did senior Brian O'Donnell. Fiore, who had never been benched before, played only five games last season, recording a goals-allowed average of 11.98 and a 33.3 percent save percentage.
Humbled, Fiore went into the summer determined to change.
Instead of staying home in the shadow of Cornell's campus, Fiore traveled to Scituate, Mass., to "reset" for almost two months. He stayed with teammate Kyle Ewanouski's family. Knowing Ewanouski would push him, Fiore trained with his teammate at least four days a week, determined to return to campus a different guy. He did.
"He just played better," says DeLuca matter-of-factly. "I think he found a sense of urgency."
Fiore won his starting job back, and as the season inched closer, Pannell saw a difference in his teammate. What he saw was the old Fiore.
It started with Fiore asking his captain to warm him up before one of the practices, something the goalie had never asked the attackman to do before. Soon the anomaly became the routine.
"I was having difficulty scoring on him from the distance that I usually would score on him and have scored on him in years past," says Pannell of the time-and-room shots peppered from 13 to 15 yards out.
Fiore helped guide Cornell to a 10-3 regular-season record, an Ivy League tournament championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament. Unlike the team's previous two trips to the NCAA tournament, Cornell is not a favorite, but rather an unseeded underdog and playing the role of season-ending spoiler.
Cornell knocked off No. 6 Maryland and No. 3 Ohio State and now finds itself headed to Philadelphia with a semifinal meeting against No. 7 Duke.
With one last weekend to don Cornell's carnelian and white uniform, Fiore realizes how fortunate he is to be back home in between the pipes.
"Right now, I have a second chance and a lot of people don't have those opportunities, so I'm just trying to make the most of it," he says.
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