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R.G. Keenan is a force at the faceoff

The score is tied at 10 as two faceoff specialists get into a crouched stance. The only thing that separates the two is a white ball.

Each player wants to win one final game-winning possession for his team more than anything in this moment on March 30, 2013.

They don’t have time to think as they anticipate the whistle inside Kenan Stadium.

When it sounds, it’s almost as if one of the two had a sixth sense and knew the exact moment to go. Clamping down on the ball before his opponent even moved, North Carolina’s R.G. Keenan flicked the ball forward.

Sprinting after a ball that was rolling past his opponent, Keenan used his body to keep Johns Hopkins’ Mike Poppleton from getting it and scooped it up himself with only his left hand on his stick.

As he picked up the ball, he had just two thoughts. If All-American attackman Marcus Holman is open, pass it to him. He’ll score, no question.

If not, take it all the way and cram it home. And that’s just what Keenan did, in classic R.G. Keenan style.

The pressure might have been on, but Keenan wasn’t worried about responding to that. He was just worried about responding to the whistle.

After the game the humble star didn’t have much to say to the media. He doesn’t like flaunting his talent.

“Honestly, it just happened,” Keenan said. “They didn’t slide to me, so I went down and shot. I wasn’t thinking about it.”

It’s what he always says when he makes a play like that. He doesn’t care about taking the credit he should. He’s just happy for the win.

His dad, Bob Keenan, knows better than anyone else.

“He takes it personally to win the game,” the proud father claims. “He doesn’t worry about anything but winning the game.

“It’s the type of person he is.”

Bursting on the scene

Robert Gately Keenan III didn’t start playing lacrosse until later, relative to other kids in Maryland, but when he did, it was evident he had a knack for winning at the faceoff X.

Just a few years after starting, the high school student was forced to make a decision that many talented faceoff men have to make.

“You can play middie and maybe make the varsity team and kind of struggle,” he said his coaches at Boy’s Latin told him. “Or you can faceoff ... make varsity and play.”

The decision was easy for the kid with an uncanny ability to vacuum up ground balls. From then on he would be slapped with the label “FoGo,” meaning “Face-off and Get off.”

He would be focusing on one thing: winning possessions for the team.

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“People don’t realize how many hours he’s put in outside of practice,” Keenan’s dad said. “He works very hard, but he doesn’t let you know that.”

But Keenan’s blue-collar approach didn’t go unnoticed.

“He’s just really well built,” UNC faceoff coach Chris Feifs said of his initial impression of the now 5-foot-11, 200-pound Keenan when he saw him in high school.

“He was bullying kids, essentially.”

Once he came to UNC it wasn’t much different.

“As a freshman in college, he was able to go against seasoned college players and hold his own,” Feifs said.

But as a sophomore, things changed. He wasn’t holding his own. He was dominating.

Winning more than 200 faceoffs in 17 games, Keenan won an astounding 60.3 percent of his faceoffs. He was selected as a first-team All-American. He was set to break all the records. He was going to be the best UNC had ever seen.

But then again, he wouldn’t let you know that.

“To get him to talk about something he’s accomplished in lacrosse is very hard for him to do,” his father said. “You could sit in a room with him and he’s never going to mention (what he’s) accomplished.”

Even the thought of a reporter being forced to make R.G. talk about his career was humorous to Bob Keenan. He knows R.G. doesn’t like to talk.

He’s never forced him to. He’s always told his son to let his playing speak for itself.

That year it did.

Changing the rules

“We go to a coaches conference every year up in Baltimore for IMCLA,” Feifs said. “And they do a rules video for all the coaches.”

A rules video that goes over what referees will look out for in the coming season.

This year, emphasis was put on faceoff specialists not having hands on their stick’s head or using elbows.

In order to do that, they needed in-game examples.

“It just so happened that they used him as the person they used,” Feifs said. “He was automatically in the spotlight as the main culprit.”

It wasn’t like he was the only one doing these things, but now every referee knew. Every referee was watching.

From then on, the match ups at the faceoff X were different. To the average viewer it wasn’t noticeable, but to the trained eye, it was clear.

Without being able to use elbows or get as much leverage, faceoffs became less about brawn and more about finesse.

“My sophomore year if I’m struggling, I’d just go to use my strength, just blowing somebody off the ball,” Keenan continued. “(After that, rules) changed the faceoff into more of a technical quickness game.”

The changes in rule enforcement were like exchanging a brawl at midfield into game of rock, paper, scissors.

Struggling against quicker opponents such as Duke’s All-American Brendan Fowler, Keenan’s faceoff percentage dropped to a more mediocre 53 percent his junior year.

He wouldn’t let rule changes be an excuse, though. Other players had to adjust, too. Other players didn’t have to deal with the nagging knee injuries Keenan dealt with, but Keenan wouldn’t let that be an excuse, either.

Despite that slight drop off, Keenan still helped the team win games and even put the team on his back with a clutch game-winning goal against Johns Hopkins.

While his percentage was lower, his impact wasn’t.

Still on pace

Despite being brought back down to earth his junior year, Keenan was still on pace for the UNC record for faceoff wins and maybe even ground balls going into his senior year.

UNC started the season with a blowout against Furman to begin the faceoff man’s final campaign. But in the following week, something went wrong.

Going after a ground ball, while trying to box out one of his opponents during a faceoff in practice, Keenan stepped on the ball.

His leg didn’t respond well. Bending his knee awkwardly, Keenan felt that something might be wrong with it, but he tried to ignore it and get over it.

“Maybe it’ll just go away,” he thought. “I just sprained it a little bit. It’ll be fine.”

But it wasn’t.

He tore his meniscus and surgery would make him miss a month of his final season.

“I feel like I probably could have gotten some records from (Shane Walterhoefer) if I didn’t get hurt,” Keenan said. “But things happen, and I guess things happen for a reason.”

One final return

Exactly one month after surgery, Keenan was cleared to play against Harvard for a cold and damp midweek matchup.

Breakout freshman Stephen Kelly started, but the coaches were determined to see how healthy Keenan was and give him a chance to play.

Late in the game Kelly went down with an injury, though, and the freshman who seemed to be taking Keenan’s position was out for the season.

R.G. Keenan would make his return as a starter in Kenan Stadium against a top-ranked Maryland team.

They could have started someone else. They could have played someone who had taken reps all season.

But they started Keenan. In a tough spot. On a big stage.

“We did that purposefully,” Fiefs said ... We put him out there just as a show of confidence.”

But that confidence was short-lived for the veteran, who hadn’t had a chance to get into a rhythm. Losing all of his four faceoffs early in the game, the coaches pulled Keenan in his comeback debut.

Ultimately, the vote of confidence was too much for even Keenan to handle, but it showed the Tar Heels were willing to give him the keys to the car that is UNC’s season.

They trust him.

Still clutch

Keenan had only been back in the lineup for three games by the time UNC hosted Virginia on senior day.

As R.G. and his classmates were honored, they were in the midst of fighting in a tightly contested ballgame against the Cavaliers.

Keenan was only 11-25 on the day, still struggling to find his rhythm, but in a ball game that was tied at 10 late, it was only natural that Keenan did what Keenan does.

Winning a ball forward, the senior did what he’s known for, but this time it was different.

Sure, he came up clutch, he won the ball forward, he scored the game-winning goal, he showed that his humble poise can mentally prepare him for any situation on the field.

But more importantly, Keenan proved that he’s back.

“I wish there was (a formula), so I could bottle it and pass it along to all our guys,” Feifs said. “It’s just how he’s wired as a faceoff guy.”

Keenan won’t break any records. Those opportunities faded as his meniscus tore.

But with the playoffs near, the one opportunity that Keenan does possess is better.

With humility and a blue-collar attitude, Keenan has a chance to help take his team to the promised land and come up in the clutch one more time.

“R.G.’s nature is a little bit unique in terms of understanding that (he’s) only as good as (his) last faceoff,” Feifs said. “You’re only as good as the faceoff you’re taking right then.”

And with his career coming to a close, Keenan is hoping that last faceoff is a win.