Neither Curtis Holmes nor Charlie Raffa seems fazed when staring down a prolific opponent at the faceoff X.
The pair has led the Terrapins men’s lacrosse team to an ACC-best .620 faceoff percentage through four games this season. Holmes, a preseason All-American in 2012, has won 15 of 24 faceoffs this year while returning to full form after back surgery over the summer. Raffa, meanwhile, has taken over as the team’s top option during Holmes’ recovery, notching a potent .591 faceoff percentage.
So why would any opponent intimidate the Terps’ duo on game day? The two midfielders can’t face much fiercer competition than they do at practice.
“With me and Curt, [the faceoff competition] is even most of practice,” said Raffa, who is likely to face off against midfielder Phil Poe when the No. 1 Terps host UMBC tonight. “Curt is one of the best competitors I have. It definitely helps both of us get ready for games.”
The Terps’ faceoff specialists, though, have a challenge tonight. Last season, Poe won 15 of 19 faceoffs — 13 of 17 against Holmes — and propelled UMBC to an 8-7 win over the Terps in Baltimore. Raffa, who was expecting to redshirt at the time, watched the Terps lose their fourth game in six tries against the Retrievers from the sidelines.
This year, however, coach John Tillman thinks things will be different.
“Charlie has really come a long way since that game last year,” Tillman said. “Curtis is on his way to being healthier than a year ago. We like both of those guys.”
Raffa is certainly getting more work. This year he has taken 66 faceoffs through four games after taking 114 in 13 games a year ago, and his season average is nearly 4 percent higher than the .553 mark he posted last season.
The sophomore has established himself as the top option at the faceoff X, but he isn’t the only option. Holmes — who suffered a subpar 2012 campaign while dealing with a bulging disc in his back — has bounced back this season and is nearing the form that made him one of the nation’s top faceoff specialists two seasons ago.
If Raffa and Holmes fail to produce, the Terps can turn to freshman Andrew Walsh, who ranked sixth in the nation in faceoff percentage as a high school senior last season. Midfielders Jake Bernhardt and Bobby Gribbin have even found success in limited chances facing off.
“There are some options. We always go with the hot hand,” Tillman said. “That’s something we have prepared for considering all the success [UMBC] had last year with [Poe].”
The depth not only gives the Terps options for each game, but it helps the team avoid injury.
In 2011, the Terps relied on Holmes to take more than 94 percent of the team’s faceoffs. His body didn’t respond well, developing the bulging disc he had removed last summer.
But with Holmes and Raffa splitting opportunities, they are staying healthy. And that’s going to be important for the Terps (4-0) if they hope to fend off the Retrievers (1-3) tonight.
The Terps have the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense (16.75 goals per game) and are tied for the fifth best scoring defense (6.75 goals allowed per game), presenting a tough challenge for UMBC. A challenge that becomes nearly impossible if the Terps’ faceoff specialists can keep the ball away from the Retrievers.
“The less possessions they can get, the less shots they can take on goal,” Holmes said. “And when you have a goalie like Niko [Amato], he’s going to make a majority of the saves. So it really limits what they can do.”
It won’t be easy for the Terps to outduel Poe, who boasts a .539 faceoff percentage. But Raffa and Holmes think they’re up to the task.
They have, after all, been preparing by battling some stiff competition.
“It makes the game easier,” Holmes said. “You have good competition all week in practice, and then you get to the games and sometimes it’s not even close.”