Knights’ standout goalie embraces nickname, role with team

by Chris Hunt

Back in 2007, soon-to-be Lake Norman Charter boys lacrosse coach Terry Gobble was at the helm of a 13-and-under youth lacrosse travel team called Carolina Crush 13U. Those were the days when lacrosse was new to the Lake Norman community and pioneers such as Gobble were searching to make the sport more prominent in the area.

Over the years, it was quite common for Gobble to answer many questions from parents and children interested in the burgeoning sport, but on this day back in 2007, he had a simple query of his own. During a Carolina Crush practice, he looked at his squad and wondered who was going to be the team’s goalie.

When he asked for a volunteer, a young, pudgy seventh-grader raised his hand. John Clark said he would give goalie a try. Clark wasn’t the most gifted athlete on the team – more of a lifelong baseball player than a lacrosse player – but Gobble gave him a shot anyway. Five years later, Gobble is now the coach of the Lake Norman Charter boys lacrosse team, and Clark is still his goalkeeper.

It’s safe to say Clark has excelled at the position. As a junior this season, he’s made 158 saves in 15 matches. Gobble said Clark’s .612 save percentage is third best on’s North Carolina rankings and one of the biggest reasons his team has won 10 games and qualified for the N.C. High School Athletic Association playoffs with just one loss in Conference 10. Gobble continued praising Clark, adding his save total is second-best in the state.

And to think, Clark only raised his hand that day on a whim.

“I was pretty slow and wouldn’t have been much use in the field, so I just tried to play goalie,” said Clark. “Now it appeals to me because people respect you for being in front of the net and the momentum of the game hinges upon my performance as goalie.”

Since he was 5 years old, Clark played baseball. But the day he answered Gobble’s call, Clark’s athletic future took an abrupt U-turn. Lacrosse’s fast pace fit Clark’s busy lifestyle on and off the field. Besides serving as a Lake Norman Charter class president since his freshman year, Clark fills his calendar with commitments to the National Honor Society, the French Honor Society, volunteer coaching for youth lacrosse programs and, of course, the Lake Norman Charter team.

“I used to play baseball in eighth grade, but I made the switch to lacrosse,” said Clark, whose GPA exceeds 4.0. “It appealed to me because the fast pace contradicts with baseball’s slow pace. Lacrosse parallels my lifestyle.”

Choosing lacrosse over baseball was the right choice. As an eighth-grader, he earned the nickname “Net Zero” after posting four consecutive shutouts for Carolina Crush’s 13-and-under squad at the Nolan Jenkins Memorial tournament in Virginia.

A day after posting the 0.0 goals-against average, Clark’s hot streak continued in practice, encouraging a Carolina Crush assistant coach to dub him Net Zero. Clark’s teammates liked it, and the moniker traveled with him to Lake Norman Charter, where he’s started the last two seasons. Clark doesn’t mind the nickname and sees it as assurance from his peers.

“The nickname was a boost for my confidence,” said Clark. “I try to be humble about it, but it felt cool. It made me think I could save any shot. That my teammates believe in me helps me play better.”

Where’s the fire?

Clark has worked hard to become the goalie he is today. The raw skills of a lacrosse net-minder were always there, waiting to be uncovered. If there was a proverbial shovel that did most of the digging, it was Gobble’s words after a particularly terrible practice in eighth grade.

That day, Gobble took Clark aside for a pep talk that meant so much that the goalkeeper still keeps the speech in his cell phone as a reminder. Whenever Clark’s commitment wanes, he just thinks about Gobble’s words and what they meant that afternoon.

You have to find the fire
No one else can find if for you
No one else can make you work for it
It’s all on you

Before, his natural instinct was to shy away from the lightning-fast shots sent in his direction. Now, Clark doesn’t give an inch. Years of target practice have taken the sting off the ball’s impact against his body. These days, he’d prefer to feel the ball ricochet off his skin than hear it hit the net. It’s safe to say, thanks to his coach, he’s found the fire inside.

“I like stepping up when no one else can,” said Clark. “I feel more pain giving up the last goal in a close game than when a shot hits me.”

Clark took his coach’s words one step further after his sophomore campaign. The day after his team’s season ended, Clark started jogging on the school’s track after school. Until his junior year, Clark was admittedly “pudgy,” and he knew he had to shed the extra weight to take his game to the next level. Even though he hated running, Clark spent most days on the track churning out mile after mile.

Thanks to his efforts, Clark returned 20 pounds lighter this spring. He is also in better shape, which is important because he can now run faster to jumpstart the team’s offense. Clark’s extra speed gives him the confidence to advance the ball and leave the net. With just 20 seconds to clear  the ball past midfield after the defense takes possession (lacrosse’s version of basketball’s shot-clock rule), Gobble can now count on Clark as an offensive distributor.

“Now that he’s quick, he’s more confident to make the clear,” said Gobble. “Last year, our clear rate was about 55 percent, but this year it was 85 percent. He’s the beginning of our offense. He’s helped us become an offensive threat.”

More important, Clark’s commitment to training has also helped the team’s defense – dramatically. He’s quicker to make the save. He can also change directions swiftly to keep up with the opposing ball rotation.

In a thrilling match for the Conference 10 regular-season title against powerhouse Lake Norman High School, a team many consider to be the best in the state, Clark made a career-high 24 stops. On most days, high school lacrosse goalies consider double-digit saves to be a good game. Against the Wildcats, however, Clark was – as they say in hockey and lacrosse – standing on his head. Twisting and turning his body, Clark threw every limb he had in front of the Wildcat’s shots – kick saves, shoulder saves, glove saves.

On one play, Clark stopped a close shot from Lake Norman’s heralded midfielder Danny Brown with his foot. When Brown scooped up the rebound and fired again from point-blank range, Brown went up high to make the second stop.

Last season, there was no way Clark would’ve made both saves. Thanks to him, the Knights were tied with Lake Norman for most of the first two quarters, until the Wildcats blew the game open for a 17-5 victory. Then again, for two quarters, it must have seemed as if Clark was playing with five lacrosse sticks that night.

“Clark has a knack for getting every part of his body in front of the ball to make the save,” said Gobble. “He’ll fling an arm or a leg up. Sure (Lake Norman) still got their goals against us, but they had to take 50 shots to do it.”

Lake Norman Charter lost to Lake Norman that night, but despite the score, the Wildcats couldn’t put out the fire inside Clark.