The first volley in the next chapter of the Johns Hopkins-Maryland rivalry will occur at the opening whistle Saturday when Drew Kennedy and Charlie Raffa meet at the faceoff X.
The Blue Jays' Kennedy and the Terps' Raffa rank in the top 10 in Division I in faceoff percentage, and how the juniors perform at Homewood Field could determine which team emerges with a win and a significant boost to its profile for earning one of 18 spots in the NCAA men's lacrosse tournament.
Kennedy's and Raffa's teammates who play on the wings are well aware of their impact.
"He is very critical because that's the way you can get possession of the ball and control the game," Maryland senior long-stick midfielder Michael Ehrhardt said of Raffa. "If you keep winning faceoffs, you keep giving the offense the ball, and it gives them a chance to score goals for us and build a lead and create momentum. It's really pivotal to our success this year."
Added Johns Hopkins junior long-stick midfielder Michael Pellegrino: "Drew is essential to our success. Drew works harder than anybody else on our team."
Raffa and Kennedy have taken different paths to this stage. Raffa endured a pair of surgeries on a balky shoulder in his freshman and sophomore years with the Terps (9-1) before becoming the team's primary faceoff specialist in 2013. He won 54.0 percent (116 of 215) of his draws last year and collected 75 ground balls, but said his technique has become more refined as he has matured.
"Since my freshman year, how I've faced off has definitely changed," said Raffa, who ranks ninth in the nation with a 63.0 percentage (97-for-154) and 11th with 8.1 ground balls per game. "I think I was more mechanical back then than I am now. I try to be more fluid and try to stay on the field more if possible and try to get some extra opportunities for our offense and try to get mismatches in the [substitution] game. Even my mechanics in facing off have changed in each game since my freshman year."
Kennedy was a highly sought-after prospect, but spent his first two seasons with the Blue Jays (6-3) backing up Mike Poppleton. But the tutelage helped Kennedy learn how to work on his game, especially outside of practice; he is renowned for putting in extra reps for as long as an hour afterward.
"It was a little difficult after playing a lot in high school," said Kennedy, who ranks fourth in the country with a .659 percentage (139-for-211) and third with 10.6 ground balls per game. "But it was really a good learning experience. Going from high school to the college level is a really big jump. So I think if I didn't have that, it would be a lot harder in terms of the transition, but Mike really made it a smooth transition for me."
Kennedy and Raffa don't know each other particularly well, but they have monitored each other from afar.
"He's a big, physical guy," the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Kennedy said of the 6-1, 195-pound Raffa. "He likes to push you and get into a position to score goals. We need to stop transition on him because he likes to push it forward. He's a good faceoff guy. It's going to be tough."
Said Raffa of Kennedy: "He's facing off at above 65 percent. So he's obviously very good. I don't know exactly what he does, but like every faceoff guy, they clamp, they jam, they rake. So I know it's going to change based on if I'm doing well or he's doing well. We're probably going to end up changing our moves to counter each other. So we'll see how it goes during the course of the game."
Faceoff wins don't guarantee victories, but they can lead to more possessions and scoring opportunities. That is critical for a Terps unit that ranks eighth in the country in scoring at 12.8 goals per game and a Blue Jays squad that is 11th at 12.3.
Getting to 10 goals has been key for both programs. Since Dave Pietramala became the coach for the 2001 season, Johns Hopkins is 120-12 when scoring at least 10 goals. Over that same span, Maryland is 118-10 when it reaches the 10-goal mark.
"We'd like to be able to win our fair share," Pietramala said. "When you're facing off against a guy like [Raffa], you want to get yours. You don't want it to be lopsided. You want to make sure you're competitive there. You don't want to allow breaks. Both these guys have the ability to create offense."
Said Tillman: "To know that you have a chance, that's important. That certainly will be important this weekend. Drew Kennedy has been as good as anybody in the country this year. He is really impressive. He's been dominant all year and presents some serious challenges for us. We're going to have to do a really good job this weekend."