Connor Kelly and Joel Tinney have spent a considerable amount of time studying film in advance of the annual matchup between Maryland and Johns Hopkins. They can't help but admire what they have seen.
"There's definitely no shortage of plays that he's making, and it's not even just him," the Blue Jays' Tinney said of Kelly. "He obviously makes guys around him better."
"I think he's a spectacular player," the Terps' Kelly said of Tinney. "I think he's evolved from his freshman year."
When No. 3 Maryland (10-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten) and No. 7 Johns Hopkins (9-3, 3-1) meet on Saturday, their respective offenses will be led by a pair of senior midfielders who showcase a skill set as diverse as their responsibilities.
Kelly and Tinney pace their teams in assists and points. Both have not been shy about running back on defense. And they are vocal captains and emotional leaders.
In an era when attackmen have won 13 of 17 Tewaaraton Awards – college lacrosse's version of the Heisman Trophy – including the last eight, Kelly and Tinney are rare midfielders who spark their offenses. They are semifinalists for the award.
"In today's day and age, the attack tends to be the beneficiaries, and they're on the tail end of finishing a lot," Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala said. "… You have two young men that have a strong IQ for the game, two very competitive young men. So you have two young men that are unique talents and making the most of their opportunities as the figureheads within their offenses."
Their reputations as goal scorers have preceded Kelly and Tinney. With 118 career goals, Kelly ranks ninth in Terps history. Tinney became the second-fastest midfielder in Johns Hopkins history under Pietramala to reach 50 goals.
But both players have matured into playmakers. Kelly, who had 27 assists in his first three years, has 29 assists this spring. Tinney has 28 assists after accumulating 19 prior to this season.
Kelly's transformation was a result of last year's NCAA championship-winning team graduating attackmen Matt Rambo and Colin Heacock.
"Last year playing with Matt Rambo and Colin Heacock, I would play up top and be a step-down shooter," Kelly said. "This year, I think being a senior leader, I can be the initiator and create a little bit of offense."
Kelly is so valuable to Maryland that he lingers on the offensive side of the field as an attackman before shifting to the midfield when the unit is in its traditional half-field set.
"I do think he's done a lot of what Mike Chanenchuk did for us in 2014 where he's distributing the ball, he's getting everybody involved," coach John Tillman said. "He's kind of an attackman when we start the game, but he goes back and plays defense and kind of plays in front of the goal a lot like Mike did. I think that's one of the reasons why his assists total is up. We need him to do more, and he's got to start the offense – or at least find the open guy a little bit more."
Tinney's development is not a response to a specific absence, but rather a realization that he has the ability to kick-start the offense.
"It's accepting my role," he said. "Teams are obviously keying on certain players, and it changes year to year with the graduation of seniors and guys taking on different roles. For me, in order to be successful this year, I couldn't just barrel to the goal every time and draw doubles because that wouldn't have been what's best for this team."
Pietramala said a turning point for Tinney occurred during a sequence late in the fourth quarter of a 13-11 loss to North Carolina on Feb. 23 in which he dodged and drew a slide but committed a turnover instead of distributing the ball.
"I think from that point, he's really come to understand and trust his teammates," Pietramala said. "If the opportunity is there for him to score, he's going to score. But if he draws a slide or he draws the attention, he needs to move the ball and allow someone else to do his job and make the play."
Because of their willingness to play defense, there may be a moment in Saturday's game when Kelly and Tinney are matched up against each other. The hypothetical matchup drew chuckles from both players.
"I'd say that in the half-field game, he might have me," Tinney conceded. "But in a full-field game, I'll take myself, and you can let him know that I said that. But in a half-field game, you have to go with him because of his ability to use both of his hands and create from different spots in the field."
Countered Kelly: "As a competitor, I would like to think that I have an edge. I know how he plays a little bit. He's a Canadian lefty, and I think I would need some help in the film room to see what our scout is. But he's a great player. So I give him a lot of credit. He's an awesome player to go against, and if I ever have that opportunity, I know I'll try to do my best."