As a walk-on goalie for the University of Maryland’s lacrosse team in 2007, first-year Centennial boys lacrosse coach Nick Kellinger quickly demonstrated just how tough he could be.
A week into practicing with the Terps — after earning a roster spot with an impressive preseason tryout — two shots in succession during a rapid-fire drill found Kellinger’s left thumb. Looking down through his ripped glove, Kellinger knew the thumb was broken and his Division I career was in jeopardy.
“I was only on the team because kids were hurt so I was convinced that if I got injured, they would have no use for me and kick me off the team,” Kellinger said.
Sent to get X-Rays with an accompanying form from the team trainer, Kellinger pulled a fast one. The trainer wrote, “left thumb” on the form but on the walk over to the get his hand examined, Kellinger crossed out the “L” and wrote “R” for right thumb.
“I had my left hand in my pocket the whole time. The lady X-Rayed my thumb and said, ‘It looks fine,’ ” Kellinger said. “I just taped it up before every practice. It hurt like hell, but I played with it. My thumb doesn’t go straight anymore.”
Although he probably wouldn't encourage his players to do the same, it's an example of the hard-nosed mentality that Kellinger stresses to his Eagles, who are 14-2 and riding a 10-game winning streak going into tonight’s Class 3A/2A South region title game against host Glenelg at 7.
“I’ve told the kids that one of the most important things to me is toughness,” said Kellinger, who was the starting goalie on the Eagles’ 2004 state title team. “I feel like at Centennial, we’ve kind of had an attitude of being pretty and we play soft lacrosse. At Maryland, it was all toughness. The next day, you were going to know that you played Maryland.
“I've brought the same thing here. You’re going to know that you’ve played Centennial when you wake up tomorrow. It starts with toughness, both physical and mental toughness. That’s something I try to instill in the guys and they’ve taken to it.”
The change has been evident. After losing several close games, Centennial finished last season tied for fourth in the county at 7-4. This season, the Eagles finished second with a 10-1 record, losing only to Glenelg, 6-5, in the first game of the year.
Even some of Centennial’s players were surprised by the quick turnaround.
“Coming into the year, I don’t think anyone was expecting to finish second in the county,” senior goalie Bryan Ruygrok said. “We only lost to Glenelg by one goal.”
Kellinger has developed a strong relationship with Ruygrok.
“We’re pretty close,” Ruygrok said. “He works with me every day before practice and warms me up. He’s given me pointers like what kinds of shots I’m going to see and scouting reports on different shooters. His main thing is no matter how many shots go in, the score is always 0-0. You’ve got to have that mentality as a goalie.”
That philosophy has worked for Ruygrok, who is headed to McDaniel College in the fall. Behind Ruygrok and defensemen like Chase Conley and Kevin Wilson, the Eagles haven’t allowed an opposing team to score in double digits all season.
The team’s preparation goes back to Kellinger’s senior season as the Maryland scout team goalie. Facing the first-team offense every day, he soaked up as much strategy as possible in the event that a head coaching job opened up.
With the chance to lead his alma mater this season, Kellinger jumped at the opportunity. He has put into practice what he learned in College Park to run his high school team like a Division I program.
“His coaching style is more college-based,” senior attackman Stephen Latona said. “He knows everything we’ll see in the game because he’s been there at the highest level. All the drills we do, I’ll probably see them in college next year cause he got them from Maryland.”
Another Division I aspect that Kellinger has brought to the Eagles is being on time for practice. No excuses.
“Every time that we show up late to practice, we have to run 1,000-yard shuttles,” Ruygrok said. “So that’s pretty good motivation to get here on time.”
Kellinger explained the emphasis on punctuality.
“I like to make the most out of our practice time,” he said. “Coming from Maryland where we played year-round and were out there for three hours a day, I’m used to having that much time but at the high school level you don’t have it.”
Kellinger, 27, has had a special connection with this team. Being young enough to be views as a big brother has allowed for the players to relate to him on a unique level.
“He knows how to motivate us,” Latona said. “He’s on Facebook, he’s been texting us all year. He’s not really big on the quote thing but says the right thing at the right time. He always knows what to say to get us going.”
Kellinger isn't surprised that the Eagles are playing Glenelg for the regional championship tonight.
“We’re right about where I expected us to be,” he said. “I knew that we had a good team that could play with anybody. I knew our defense would be strong enough that we would be in every single game. I had hoped we would knock off Glenelg in that first game."
Kellinger's Eagles will get a second shot at the Gladiators. Defending regional champion Glenelg has not lost to a league opponent in 59 consecutive games.
“Once we get by that test, I really think the sky is the limit for this team,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of seniors and guys that we’re losing like Latona and Ruygrok that are irreplaceable. For us, there is sort of a win now mentality.”