Virginia men’s lacrosse coach Dom Starsia thought he had Maryland’s Joe Walters figured out. Then he watched the attackman carve up the Cavaliers for six goals Sunday and lead the Terrapins to their first ACC tournament title since 1998.
“He played like I didn’t think he was capable of,” Starsia said. “I’m on the Tewaaraton [Trophy] committee, and I said the other day, ‘He has to go on the [candidates] list.’ He wasn’t even on the initial list, and this boy may end up being the best player in the country this season. For him to get 16 shots and basically be a one-handed player — the greats can get away with that, the [former Syracuse stars Gary and Paul] Gaits [of the world].”
Walters may not be quite at that level yet, but he’s on his way. The sophomore, who was named ACC player of the year this week, has scored 36 goals for No.3 Maryland (10-2) entering today’s game against No.12 Notre Dame (7-4) at Byrd Stadium.
Walters impressed last year, scoring 33 goals while earning ACC rookie of the year honors. Surrounded by veterans, he fit in well as a left-handed scoring option and helped Maryland reached the final four for the first time since 1998.
But after the departure of Maryland’s other two starting attackmen and six of the team’s top seven midfielders, Walters became the focal point of the Terps’ offense. Though he needed to adjust to almost a completely new set of offensive teammates, Walters embraced his new role.
“Last year I was definitely more of a role player,” Walters said. “There were a lot of seniors, and when those guys graduated I was definitely looked upon as the leading player on offense. It was a little different, but it took some time getting used to.”
If all the new faces created any trouble, it never showed. The consistent Walters is always in the Terps’ offensive mix even though he usually draws the opposition’s top defenseman. Thanks to a long summer of practice, Walters has become a better dodger, making him a scoring threat from nearly anywhere.
“He doesn’t really need to get by his man to get the shot off,” sophomore midfielder Brendan Healy said. “He just needs half a step, so he’s gotten really great at that. It looks like he’s completely covered, and all of a sudden he’ll shoot it and it’ll go in. I don’t think anyone else on the team can do that.”
Walters also has worked on his passing, and Maryland coach Dave Cottle believes his assists will rise in the next couple seasons. He also has improved his riding game dramatically and has delivered some key transition goals, including a score to seal the Terps’ ACC semifinal defeat of Duke on April22.
“He was just a one-dimensional kind of shooter, and now he’s charismatic but can also feed and can also dodge,” Cottle said. “I think he’s just expanded his game.”
Walters’ offseason project will be to develop some moves to his right. As difficult as he is to contain now, he would be nearly impossible to defend if he could threaten to go to both sides.
“I’ve worked on it a little bit,” Walters said. “The coaches tell me, ‘If you go to your right more, it’ll open up a lot more.’ It’s something I need to work on over the summer.”
Walters (69 goals, 97 points) could rewrite Maryland’s career record book in the next two years. He is almost halfway to the 149 goals scored by Matt Hahn, and Bob Boneillo’s career points record of 219 seems within reach.
It’s a prospect Walters shrugs off, but it gives pause to others in the sport.
“I thought he could be defended one-on-one and that he was just a shooter,” Starsia said. “He showed some parts of his game that I hadn’t seen before. He has really blossomed. He has wonderful skills, but he has toughness that I hadn’t appreciated. You go from thinking, ‘OK, we can deal with this guy’ to ‘How are we going to deal with him for two more years.’ That’s a big transformation.”