Rob Fortunato understood there would be competition at whichever elite Division I program he opted to attend.
It was especially true at Virginia, where a goalie who started for 3 1/2 seasons was a class ahead of him.
“He says to me, ‘I want to come to Virginia and I’m ready to accept this opportunity,’ and his friends are saying, ‘Don’t go there, you’ll never play there, [Adam] Ghitelman’s there,’ ” coach Dom Starsia recalled of Fortunato’s commitment. “He knew exactly what he was getting into.”
For three years, Fortunato sat behind Ghitelman. With the job finally his after no shortage of effort, Fortunato has emerged as one of the steadying influences for the top-ranked Cavaliers (8-0), who play host to No. 2 Johns Hopkins (7-0) at Klockner Stadium on Saturday.
Fortunato ranks sixth in the nation in save percentage (.609) and seventh in goals against average (7.15), emerging as a crucial element in Virginia’s ability to navigate an arduous and cluttered early stretch.
“It always goes back to work ethic,” Fortunato said. “I’ve been waiting for this for a while. I knew Dom wasn’t going to hand it to me. I had to earn everything I was getting.”
After three years, it wasn’t going to be easy. Virginia added well-regarded goalies in its last two recruiting classes, and there was also some recent history. Ghitelman earned the starting job as a true freshman in 2008 over veteran Bud Petit before the senior took over in the second half of the year.
There was also concern from the start of Fortunato’s career whether he could be a major contributor. He came from a small private school in New Jersey, where even he acknowledged there wasn’t always fierce competition.
“When we recruited Rob, I’m not sure we ever, frankly, really imagined him as a starter,” Starsia said. “When he got here, it took a year or two to get acclimated to this level, to form the consistency and toughness required to be a goalie at this level. I give him a world of credit for the way he hung in there.”
It was between Fortunato’s sophomore and junior seasons when Starsia witnessed a change in preparation and attention to detail. Fortunato was the most improved player in the program that season, and for a day it was especially vital.
Ghitelman was suspended for the 2011 opener, and Fortunato stepped in to make 12 saves in a 12-9 victory over Drexel. Ghitelman returned the next game, but Fortunato’s cameo gave himself and the Virginia coaching staff a glimpse at how he could handle a large role.
The time as a backup instilled in Fortunato the belief a steady performance would eventually earn him a starting job. And it has; Fortunato has four games with double-digit saves this season and has allowed 10 goals just once (in a 14-10 win over Syracuse on March 4).
“I didn’t want to be a goalie who is up and down, having a great performance and a not-so-great one,” Fortunato said. “Dom said the true definition of toughness is to be consistent.”
Added Starsia: “It’s been a while since we’ve had this kind of consistent level of play over an eight-game stretch [in goal]. For us, we are going into every game viewing goalie as a strength of ours.”
It’s needed. Virginia and Hopkins will meet as unbeatens for the first time since 2005, and the Cavaliers then face their usual four-week stretch of ACC play.
Consistency in the cage is often a prerequisite for long-term success. It didn’t come conventionally for Fortunato, but that’s only made this season something to appreciate even more.