Fresh out of Glenelg High, Alex Taylor joined the Salisbury men's lacrosse team for the 2011 season and promptly sought to unseat All-American Johnny Rodriguez for the starting goalie position.
The Woodbine native didn't succeed. He got only spot time in eight games, and Rodriguez (Mount St. Joseph) won Goalkeeper of the Year honors.
Three years later, Taylor has the job he wanted — as well as perspective.
As he prepares to anchor Salisbury's defense for Sunday's NCAA tournament final against Tufts (20-2) at M&T Bank Stadium at 1 p.m., Taylor characterized his freshman year as a reserve as "a perfect opportunity."
"At the time, I was a little bummed out," Taylor recalled. "I definitely wanted to give Johnny Rodriguez a good look, but looking back on it, it was probably the best thing to ever happen to me. I learned about myself, I learned a lot about the Maroon and Gold, I learned about the traditions that Salisbury has. I got to learn from some of the best captains."
Since then, Taylor has started for the 2012 squad that defeated SUNY-Cortland for the national title, and now has a chance to add a second crown to his resume.
His numbers this season — a 6.48 goals-against average and a .585 save percentage — are not as strong as his statistics from two years ago, when he posted a 4.92 goals-against average and a .660 save percentage. But Taylor remains a comforting presence for his teammates.
"It's always nice having a guy in the goal who can stop the ball when we make a mistake," junior defenseman Knute Kraus said. "And even when you don't make a mistake, he makes all the saves that he should and makes a lot of saves that he shouldn't."
Since 2012, Taylor has matured. In his first year as the undisputed starter, Taylor would grumble and growl about letting a shot get past him and be too distracted for the next one.
"When I used to let in goals my sophomore year, I would focus on the past shot and not the next one, and sometimes that would come back to bite me," he said. "… Now, I've matured a lot and gotten better with letting the last one go. The most important shot you're going to see is the next shot you're going to see."
Coach Jim Berkman said the Sea Gulls (21-1) faced a certain amount of doubt after Rodriguez's graduation in 2011.
"[Taylor's] sophomore year, we returned quite a group from the 2011 championship team, and there were some questions in the cage," Berkman said. "By the end of his sophomore year, people said we were stronger that year than we were the last year, and we had the Goalie of the Year in Johnny Rodriguez. [Taylor] really emerged as a sophomore; he's had three outstanding seasons starting in the cage. He brings something to the table besides just being able to stop the ball. He's good for some critical ground balls, and his plays outside of the cage have been very instrumental in our success."
Taylor ranks third on the team in ground balls with 68 and has 199 ground balls in three seasons. Taylor is unafraid to carry the ball and contribute to the clearing game, and Berkman said he can remember only one time when an opponent forced a turnover and scored a goal with Taylor out of the cage.
The 5-foot-10, 165-pound Taylor said his instincts to run out of the net can be traced to his playing days as a center in ice hockey, and he understands that he makes himself a target during those runs.
"When they see a goalie out of the cage, their eyes light up and they try to go for the big hit sometimes," he said. "That sometimes plays into my advantage because they're playing out of control. So I can just make one or two good moves, and I have a pretty good chance of making it work."
Kraus conceded that Taylor's teammates occasionally cringe when they see him putting himself at risk.
"We always kind of hold our breath a little bit when he starts taking runs and guys start flying at him," Kraus said. "But he's a good enough athlete that he can elude those guys, and it gives me a chance to get in the goal and get my time in the spotlight."
Salisbury's loss to Stevenson in the national semifinals last May has fueled this year's squad, especially Taylor.
"When I was a sophomore, I was fortunate enough to play in the national championship game up in [Foxborough, Mass.]," he said. "The game started, I blinked my eyes a couple times, and the game was over. This time, I'm going to really enjoy the time that I'm out there. These opportunities don't happen so often. So I'm definitely going to enjoy it and hopefully, good things will happen for the Sea Gulls."