Maryland sophomore attackman Joe Walters liked the feel of a lacrosse stick from the moment he first picked one up as a third-grader. He liked it so much, he often carried his stick with him to school in Rochester, N.Y.
Years later, he still carries his stick to class in College Park, and stays after practice to take shots, even though his teammates make fun of him for it.
"He loves lacrosse," Terps defender Lee Zink said. "There's no question about that. You always see him on campus with his stick, playing. We all rip on him, but he's always in good spirits about it."
Walters said the time he's put in with his stick has helped him get unusually comfortable with it.
"They'd give me a hard time shooting around after practice, especially if we had a hard practice," he said. "I'd say I'm out here shooting. You should be out here shooting, too."
It's no surprise he takes the ribbing in stride. This is the same player who, at 16, didn't think twice about a recruiting visit to College Park during a player protest over the hiring of coach Dave Cottle, and who said he isn't concerned about being left off the list of finalists for the Tewaaraton Trophy - given to the nation's top player - even though his numbers probably support his inclusion.
Walters, the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, doesn't seem fazed by much. It didn't crush him that he wasn't recruited by Syracuse - his favorite team growing up.
But his easygoing attitude shouldn't be misunderstood. He didn't become this good without a little fire. The burning is quiet but it's also vivid.
His motivation is a love of the sport. His lacrosse stick, like lacrosse itself, has become an inseparable part of him. He's been waiting most of his life for the stage he's now on.
"When I was little I'd always watch the big stars and dream that I'd come up and be one of those guys," Walters said.
Walters attended Syracuse games at the Carrier Dome and final fours at Maryland's Byrd Stadium with his father. He can reel off names of such big-time players he saw as former Syracuse star Casey Powell and Princeton's "Three Amigos" - Jonathan Hess, Jesse Hubbard and Christopher Massey - who led the Tigers to three straight national championships in the late '90s.
Walters now is one of those big-time players, by some accounts one of the five best in the country despite his absence from the Tewaaraton list.
"I'm playing for a national championship," Walters said. "Maybe in the next two years I'll be a finalist and maybe I'll have a chance to win it. If that happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it's no big deal."
Three years ago, he was set to play for Cottle at Loyola before Cottle succeeded Dick Edell at Maryland. Cottle persuaded Walters to go to Maryland, instead, but warned him against a visit to campus because Terps players were protesting his hiring. Walters didn't even consider not coming.
"I felt confident that regardless of how the team felt about him I wanted to come here and see what [the program] was all about," Walters said. "I had confidence in him that he'd be all right here."
Said Cottle: "I thought he was going to be a very good player. I think that the part he liked is that we really believed and I believed and his dad believed. And I'm not sure everyone else in lacrosse believed that he was going to be as good as we thought he was going to be."
Walters ranks fourth in the nation in points per game (4.4), second in total goals (45) and is tied for second in goals per game (3.0).
"Joe's as good as any shooter I've ever been around," Maryland goalkeeper Tim McGinnis said. "He sees plays in his head before they happen."
Walters changed his jersey number this season from 15 to 1 in honor of former Maryland All-American Andrew Whipple, who helped lead the Terrapins to three national-title games during the '90s - and the only player to score more career points than Walters at Irondequoit High School.
But the left-handed Walters has produced overall scoring numbers as a sophomore that Whipple - Maryland's eighth all-time leading scorer and the program's most prolific scorer in the last two decades - didn't approach until his senior year.
Today, stick in hand, he'll lead the third-seeded Terrapins into their NCAA quarterfinal against sixth-seeded Princeton in Charlottesville, Va.
"I've waited my whole life to be in a game like that, facing a top team in the nation, against a team you used to watch," Walters said. "To get to play them in a big-time game, it's going to be a super game. I can't wait to stop practicing and just get out there."