Nik-Ed Up - Nikhil Ashra Feature
It shows Ravi Sitlani and Nikhil Ashra, and they smile broadly as they joke about being the only two Indian goalies in the lacrosse world.
It is June 2008, and the Princeton men's lacrosse team has just completed its third game during its European tour. Sitlani - known to everyone as "Baggy" - is a coach with the English national team, and his squad is readying for the upcoming European championships, which they will win two months later in Finland.
Princeton has defeated England twice on the Spanish coast, and a third game between the Tigers and the English U19 team has just ended on a rugby field at University College Dublin, a game played without lacrosse lines on the field. Princeton has won that one as well.
Ashra has played well in all three games, finishing the European tour with a 4.00 goals-against and a .750 save percentage. His two years as a backup to the recently graduated Alex Hewit have ended, and he has his junior and senior years ahead of him.
Fast forward 22 months, and Ashra has played in goal for Princeton for a total of 130 minutes since, barely more than two full games worth.
Now go back to the picture. He's all smiles, standing on the field on this perfect Irish morning.
And now come back to the present, as he talks about his life and luck and college career. He's smiling that same smile.
He knew back when the picture was snapped who was on the way, and he knows now where all his minutes have gone.
"He's aware of the special talent that's in front of him," says his coach, Chris Bates. "It's a testament to him that he's never let his attitude get down and that he's remained such a positive influence on the team."
Ashra is one of the best goalies in Division I lacrosse and one of the best goalies at Princeton in the last 20 years.
He's also had the awful luck of spending his first two years behind Hewit, who was a first-team All-America, and his last two behind Tyler Fiorito, who probably will be soon enough.
"I don't think people know how good he is," Hewit says. "I remember talking to Scott Sowanick [former Princeton midfielder], and he said that Nikhil had the talent to become the best goalie in the country. Unfortunately for him, he never got the chance."
His junior year saw him split time with Fiorito until it became obvious the job would belong to the freshman.
His senior year has seen his luck get even worse, as a pair of concussions in preseason practice has sidelined him for the entire season.
"I've had some bad luck," he says, chuckling.
There aren't too many positions quite like being the goalie in lacrosse, and not all of it has to do with standing in the way of shots. No, the reality of the position is that with very, very few exceptions, you can only have one starter at a time.
Any other position? No problem. You can have the best attackman of all-time, but you still need two others.
Even if you have three great ones, as Princeton did in the Jesse Hubbard-Jon Hess-Chris Massey era, you can always find another spot on the field for your fourth. In Princeton's case, that was Lorne Smith, who came in as an attackman and instead became a first-team All-America midfielder.
Goalies are different. In fact, there's really only one other position that merits a comparison.
"It's like quarterbacks," says Ashra. "It's exactly like that. It's typical for a goalie to sit for a year or two and then play, just like quarterbacks. I joke that I'm like Matt Cassell."
Ashra isn't the only one who sees the comparison to the Kansas City Chiefs' starting quarterback, who never started a game at USC behind Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart.
"Look at the USC
quarterbacks," Hewit says.
"It's the same thing. If there was another level for lacrosse like football, there's no doubt Nikhil would get a long look. That's how good he is. He's better than most starters playing for other teams right now."
Players become goalies in lacrosse for one of three reasons: either they are too slow to play the field, they just take to it for some reason or their youth team didn't have a goalie so everyone had to take a turn and they just stuck with it.
In Ashra's case, it was reason No. 3.
Ashra grew up in Greenwich, Conn., and he was a youth player in sixth grade on a team with no goalie. By seventh grade he was a full-time goalie; by ninth grade he was the first freshman to start in goal for Greenwich High School.
He played through a broken thumb as a freshman, and his coach that year told him he would play for Princeton when he graduated. Eventually, he would be correct, though not in any direct way.
"I had never thought about Princeton growing up," Ashra says. "Actually, [former Virginia All-America] Tillman Johnson was my favorite goalie as a kid. I really didn't understand the mindset that made Princeton so special."
Ashra became an All-America at Greenwich, and he seemed headed for Duke at first. After that fell through, his next choice was Dartmouth, and he actually visited Hanover with current Princeton teammates Scott MacKenzie and Chris Chandler.
"Coach T [former Princeton coach Bill Tierney] invited me for a visit," Ashra says. "I walked into the office and saw the six NCAA championship trophies sitting there. I immediately felt that it was a special place just by being on the campus. I knew this was the right place for me."
Ashra appeared to be walking into the perfect position for a goalie, with Hewit about to enter his junior year.
In fact, the line of great Princeton goalies going back to Scott Bacigalupo basically has the same story. Bacigalupo, a finalist for the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame this year and one of the greatest ever to play the game, started every game between 1991 and 1994 and was twice the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four.
After Bacigalupo, it was Patrick Cairns for three years, including NCAA titles in 1996 and 1997. Then it was Corey Popham for the 1998 title and the 1999 season, before Trevor Tierney took over for his two years as a starter, the 2000 NCAA runner-up season and the 2001 NCAA championship season.
When Tierney graduated, Julian Gould took the Tigers back to the 2002 final and 2003 quarterfinals. Dave Law was in goal for the 2004 Final Four, and then it was Law, Hewit and Matthew Larkin for 2005 before Hewit became the starter in 2006.
In other words, between Bacigalupo's freshman year of 1991 and Fiorito's freshman year of 2009, no Princeton goalie walked in and took the starting job as a freshman.
It just happened to occur when Ashra was about to take over the starting spot.
"I was excited when I heard Tyler was coming," Ashra says. "I took it as a challenge. In order to achieve what you want, you need a goal and you need to be challenged. I figured I would sit behind Alex for two years and then play, but that's not how it worked out."
Ashra's freshman season saw him make 13 saves and allow only two goals for an astounding .867 save percentage in a backup role to Hewit.
"Freshman year was my best year," Ashra says. "I just went out and played. I was healthy for the only time in my career here. As a freshman, you come in and think you're entitled to play because you were the best on your high school team, but that's not how it is on this level. You have to earn everything you get."
Hewit was named first-team All-America that year, and he was clearly going to be the starter the next year.
As for Ashra, he had surgery that had slowed his down in the preseason. Still, when Hewit got off to a difficult start to the season, there were times when Ashra was warming up.
"Coach T told me to get ready five or six times," Ashra says. "But realistically, you're not going to take Alex Hewit out."
Indeed, Ashra played just 6:19 as a sophomore as Hewit basically played every minute of every game. Then came the trip to Europe, where Ashra looked great in goal.
At the same time, of course, Fiorito was already on his way to Princeton, but first he would play with the United States U19 team that won the World Championship in Vancouver.
Fiorito is one of the more heralded players ever to come to Princeton, and he has lived up to the billing.
The two split the first game of the 2009 season, with Fiorito as the starter and Ashra in the second half. In Game 2, Fiorito went the distance in a win over Johns Hopkins and then again the next game against UMBC, and even after they split the Hofstra game, it was obvious that it would be Fiorito's job.
It didn't help that Ashra got hurt again, this time a thumb injury.
"We traded halves in scrimmages coming into the season," Ashra says. "I was going to be like the relief pitcher, coming in for the starter. But when the goalie is hot, you don't want to take him out. I understood that."
Short of an injury to Fiorito, there was no chance Ashra was going to win the starting job for his senior year. Any chance disappeared when he was the one who got hurt, this time in a more serious fashion.
Like all goalies, Ashra has taken more than his share of direct hits, including one that split a helmet down the middle. Still, he was concussion-free until this preseason.
It was on Feb. 8 that he had his first concussion, a shot that he calls "slow" that just caught him in the same spot that he had been hit moments earlier. That kept him out for three weeks, and he lasted one practice before getting his second one. This time he got hit in the side of his head, and his chin straps stayed in place as his helmet snapped back.
"It pushed back aginst my Adam's apple," he says. "I couldn't breathe for a few seconds. I felt like I was choking. That night, I couldn't sleep, and the next day, I had the concussion test again."
He hasn't returned to the field since, and it's possible that he won't be able to practice again.
"I live with some of the other players," he says. "Even though I've never been the starter, I was always the backup, so I was always on the travel squad. When we played Brown, I didn't travel for the first time. It was really awkward for me, weird to see them packing up to go."
Ashra has been battling the concussion symptoms for weeks.
"It's been very frustrating," he says. "You don't know when you're going to get better. By three or four, I start getting headaches. There's no cure, no medicine you can take. You just have to wait it out. I've gone from working out twice a day to not working out in three months. It's not the most ideal situation."
It's also impacted his schoolwork. As a second-semster senior, that means finishing his thesis so he can graduate with his class.
"My thesis is on political scandals and their effect on public opinion," he says. "It's getting done, but it requires so much attention. It's been difficult for me to organize all of the research. I've reached out to the Office of Disabilities, and they've helped me a lot. We've communicated with my teachers. It's been hard to concentrate in class. I have a lot of sensitivity to light. It hasn't been easy."
Ashra has stayed as close to the team as he can, attending as many practices and games as possible.
"My role on the team has definitely decreased," says Ashra. "I feel like the team is moving forward and I'm standing still. I've talked to Coach Bates about it. He's let me be almost like an assistant coach on the sidelines. He's been very supportive. He hasn't let me get down."
And so instead of spending his senior year like so many goalies in the program before him, Ashra sits and waits, hoping just to get back onto the practice field.
And yet, through all of this, perhaps the most remarkable part of him is that he still has that same smile he did back in Ireland in the picture with Baggy.
"You don't always have that in situations like this," Hewit says. "There's not always a sincere, strong friendship that comes when you have two people and one position. He was always 100% supportive of me, 100% happy for me. He worked hard. He played his role. He never complained. From what I hear and what I see, he's been the exact same way with Tyler as well. Given the opportunity to play, he'd jump at it, but he's never let his spirits get down. Given how talented he is, it would be very easy to understand if he'd gotten frustrated. Even with his injuries, he's always, always smiling."
And so there he was before the Princeton-Rutgers game, in sweats instead of his No. 23 jersey.
As the team is on the Class of 1952 Stadium turf going through warmups, Nikhil Ashra is on line at the concession stand, buying a hot dog.
Then it's off to the sideline, off to encourage his teammates, off to do whatever he can.
If he's down about the bad luck that has basically taken away his college lacrosse career, he's not showing it. He never does.
Instead, he's all smiles. Always.
- by Jerry Price