When midfielder Zoe Stukenberg and defender Nadine Hadnagy started right away as freshmen for the Maryland women's lacrosse back in 2013, two things became clear: that they both had an incredible amount of talent and that they had no desire for the spotlight.
"They're both amazing people," said head coach Cathy Reese. "The two of them are just wonderful people. We've enjoyed every day of recruiting them and every day of having them around our team."
The two have grown as players and as people but, as far as the spotlight goes, not much has changed.
"Personally, I'm not much of a spotlight kind of girl," Hadnagy said in an interview. "I'm more of a play-your-role, do-your-job and whatever works for the team kind of person."
It's a similar mentality for Stukenberg.
"Personally, I think I've gotten more recognition than I deserve," she said. "Nadine and I aren't really players who think about awards. We just like to play lacrosse and play really good lacrosse and accomplish really awesome things with our team."
That really says something coming from Stukenberg, who was named ACC Freshman of the Year in 2013-2014 and received the Elite 89 (now 90) Award last season for her academic performance.
They've both come into their own this season. The pair were named captains alongside seniors Taylor Cummings and Alice Mercer, were unanimously selected to the All-Big Ten team and were named Tewaaraton Award nominees. That list represents the best 25 players in the country.
They've also come a long way from their freshman years. The two had struggles early on. Stukenberg's struggles came on the offensive end of the field.
"My biggest struggle was adjusting to the shooting," she said. "I was so used to being able to just chuck it as hard as I can at the goal and it going in. Having to add that element of creativity and deception, it took a while for it to become second nature so I could do it in games."
As a defender, Hadnagy said the speed of the game posed a big challenge, but the biggest hurdle was mental.
"Getting down on myself when I got beat was probably my biggest struggle," she said. In college, you're all awesome players and you have to work that much harder not to get beat."
So how did they improve? For Stukenberg it was practice, practice and more practice.
"Playing and being around this level of lacrosse has helped my game so much," she said. "Being pushed by this group of people has really helped my game."
Hadnagy said confidence helped her game flourish.
"Having confidence in yourself grows as you get older. The confidence that our teammates have in us has really helped us. When our coaches are confident in us and our teammates are confident in us," she said, "it's a lot easier to raise your level."
That growth and development isn't lost on Reese.
"Growth-wise, I think Nadine was quiet as a freshman and has really just emerged. This year, we've seen her have such tremendous growth on the field. Before, she wasn't making mistakes, but she wasn't standing out the way that she has been this season. Her growth has been really fun to watch," the coach said. "She's so solid and has been since day one, but now we're seeing her step up with more and more confidence.
"I think she's a stud. Nadine has that competitive attitude. She wants to do whatever it takes to be successful. She has our backs as coaches, she has her teammates' backs and she lays it all out on the field every time she gets a chance to play. She's so good, but she starts to realize how good she actually is when she's put in those situations to be challenged."
Reese said that Stukenberg is a pretty unique player and person.
"Zoe is just a bundle of energy. She is great in everything. She is super-energetic and just has such a love of life. She's somebody you just want to be around. I think her energy out on the field is contagious," she said. "She's the first to admit when she needs to do something better and she's the first to congratulate a teammate when they do something great."
The "aha!" moment
Stukenberg and Hadnagy said they never had an "aha!" moment during their freshman year, but each remembered how special their first big team accomplishment was.
"I remember [the ACC tournament] our freshman year," Stukenberg recalled. "That was the first big thing we really won; how cool it was to be a part of something that special. It was like the sixth [Maryland ACC Championship] in a row and we weren't even there for the first five!"
"But it felt like you were part of something bigger than yourself," Hadnagy interjected.
"Exactly!" Stukenberg said back. "Being a part of that tradition was so awesome. Now that we're in the Big Ten, it's been cool to start our own traditions and our own rivalries."
Finding their voice
"I think Nadine and I both do a good job of trying to lead by example and not being too vocal," Stukenberg said. "I think we're more of a calming factor on the field,"
Stukenberg said that Hadnagy's calm demeanor is a boon to the team.
"It's comforting to be on the field and look at Nadine and see her being confident in herself and in our team. That confidence rubs off on everyone."
"Them emerging as natural leaders on this team, being voted as captains, really speaks volumes about how they're perceived by their teammates," Reese said.
When I asked them what their reaction was like when they were named captains along with Cummings and Mercer, they said they didn't expect it at all.
"I'm pretty sure we looked at each other and were like 'What? OK,'" Hadnagy said as both she and Stukenberg started to laugh both started laughing. She continued, "We weren't expecting it, but it was really cool that our team thought that highly of us and I think that has translated to us being a little more confident on the field and being there more for other people and supporting them in everything they do."
What Reese appreciates most about the two juniors is the way they approach the team.
"Zoe and Nadine always put the team first. [They have this mindset of] Whatever the team needs, we're here for. We're here to serve," she said. "That's what's so great about them, and that's what makes them so special."