Toby Burgdorf Waited His Turn and Capitalized for Providence in 2020

PHOTO COURTESY OF PROVIDENCE ATHLETICS / STEW MILNE


The wait was just about over for Toby Burgdorf when he stepped into a season-ending meeting with the Providence coaching staff in the spring of 2019. He’d spent one post-graduate season and two years with the Friars waiting for the opportunity to play.

He’d done so for good reason, of course. It was all part of the plan, as Tate Boyce, a four-year starter, rolled through his impressive career. Coach Chris Gabrielli’s message was simple: Even though the staff loved what Boyce had done, they needed Burgdorf just to be himself.

“I was nervous, but I had to remind myself I had to find my style and find the type of leader and player I wanted to be,” Burgdorf said. “As much as I’d love to translate the person and player that Tate is, I kind of had to find my own groove.”

That he did, posting a .628 save percentage to rank second in Division I and a 7.94 goals-against average to finish third nationally in the abbreviated 2020 season. The latest Providence starting goalie did plenty to make the job his own last season.

There’s a lot to like beyond the numbers heading into this spring. There’s the maturity of someone almost five years removed from his high school graduation. There are no questions anywhere about Burgdorf’s ability to lead a defense. And he’s physically imposing, a big guy with a wide stance who doesn’t offer much wiggle room for opposing offenses.

“When you look at him in the cage, it’s a bit intimidating,” Gabrielli said. “There’s not a lot to shoot at, and he’s fearless.”

There are also no regrets it took so long. Burgdorf, whose brother Christian was a starting defenseman on Denver’s 2015 national title team, did the post-grad year at the Lawrenceville School (N.J.) and redshirted his first season at Providence specifically to maximize his eligibility.

Boyce was entrenched as Providence’s starter. There was little playing time to be had — less than 19 minutes worth over his first two seasons in Rhode Island — but plenty of chances to learn about the position and prepare himself for the future.

“Being behind a goalie like Tate is an experience that really is invaluable,” Burgdorf said. “The things I learned about being a leader, but also about just the goalie position in general from him, were absolutely priceless. I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. It was the perfect journey for me, getting to stand behind who I think was the best goalie in the country during his time at Providence.”

Boyce was ultra-reliable, winning the Big East’s goalie of the year honors four times and securing All-America nods as a sophomore (third team) and senior (honorable mention). It was also obvious to him from the moment Burgdorf arrived the Friars were in good shape at goalie for quite some time.

“It was clear from the start he was a great ball-stopper,” Boyce said. “There’s other pieces to being an elite goalie at that level, but right away you could tell he had that piece. From there, it was, ‘Can he figure out the fine-tuning parts — the clearing, the leadership component, the team defense, the IQ?’ He certainly answered those questions over the next couple years.”

Now comes an even more fascinating part: After deftly handling the job for six games as a redshirt-sophomore, what’s next as the Friars try to build on a 5-1 season and make a run at their first NCAA tournament appearance since the Big East began sponsoring lacrosse?

“He is a natural-born leader,” Gabrielli said. “He’s one of the nicest guys on the entire team, so everyone really loves him and respects him. He’s one of those guys off the field who always has a smile on his face, and he includes everybody and he is very welcoming. He kind of flips the switch when he gets on the field. He’s not afraid to get after people. It’s really the perfect balance.”







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Before Boyce’s run, Peter Badgley posted a .560 save percentage in 2015 to earn first team all-Big East honors. And Burgdorf might have extended the Friars’ grip on the award had the 2020 season been played to completion (though Georgetown’s Owen McElroy was also off to a stellar start).

Providence, which is 0-3 all-time in the NCAA tournament and last made the postseason in 2007, might not seem on the surface like a place likely to crank out high-end goalies. But it’s actually a logical byproduct of Gabrielli’s decisions since taking over in the summer of 2012.

One of the former Duke assistant’s first moves was to bring along the Blue Devils’ volunteer coach, former Syracuse goalie (and current Jacksonville coach) John Galloway. In the process, Gabrielli put down a marker on how much the Friars would prioritize developing players between the pipes.

“Often when you play the position, you’re more nitpicky about things,” Gabrielli said. “He was very diligent in that regard, and I think we recruited talented goalies there. We like to look at our success as that of a running back or a quarterback in terms of the offensive line. Defensively, we’re the offensive line. If our running back runs for 100 yards, the offensive line celebrates. If our goalie succeeds, our defense celebrates that.”

As strategies for programs trying to establish themselves, building around strong goalie play and a stingy defense first isn’t a bad one. Another plus: That emphasis is bound to have some appeal for goalies looking to develop.

But it’s not easy. The Friars constantly put their goalies in situations with a small field and tight spaces, throwing every possible look their way. Burgdorf said he’d never broken a sidewall on his stick head before arriving at Providence. He estimates he’s gone through “30-plus” over the last three years.

It’s not just tactics. Burgdorf believes part of Providence’s secret sauce is the bond the entire goalie corps shares, and he’s now seen it as both a starter and a backup.

“When you have that much support from the person who is essentially trying to steal your job, that creates quite a bit of comfort for you when you’re out there,” Burgdorf said. “When you come off the first one to give you a hug is the goalie standing on the sideline.”

It didn’t hurt last year that his predecessor had his back every day. Boyce remained with the program as a graduate assistant, giving Burgdorf a familiar set of eyes to help keep him on track and he settled into the starting role.

Think of it as just one more step in establishing the Friars as a goalie factory.

“We would look back on film after a game and reflect on the tiniest of details because he and I both just knew from that situation what would be best and what we did wrong,” Burgdorf said. “The relationship we had built over the first two years really translated into that third year when he was in a coaching position.”

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For his part, Boyce knew those outside the Friars’ program had questions about how well Providence could replace him. He never did.

Now, he’s eager to see how much Burgdorf can do over a full season.

“He has a high, high ceiling,” Boyce said. “He played at a high level last year, and he’s just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential.”

Providence benefitted last year from having experience in nearly every other unit, and eight of its 11 seniors from 2020 took advantage of the NCAA’s eligibility waiver to return for one more run with the Friars.

That’s fueled hopes of taking another step forward. Providence made the Big East tournament three times between 2016 and 2019, and the pieces are in place everywhere --- especially in the cage --- to do even more this spring.

“We knew [last year] if we could make a stop, we would score a goal at the other end of the field,” Burgdorf said. “As a defense, there’s nothing more calming than that. I would just say I was extremely grateful with the team we had and extremely grateful a lot of those guys came back this year. I’m just hoping we can not only replicate, but go beyond that.”

As for the initial impressions of Burgdorf as he enters his second season as a starter? Plenty promising. The skilled ball-stopper is even better playing outside the cage and has improved on his outlet passing and ability to spark transition.

And after last year, he has no reason to be nervous. Those six games showed the wait was worth it, and Burgdorf’s best may be yet to come.

“He looks like he hasn’t skipped a beat,” Gabrielli said. “His teammates voted him captain pretty much unanimously, so I think he got that stamp of approval in regards to leadership from his teammates and that’s empowered him even further to shift to another level. He’s looking like picking up right where he left off.”

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