Long before he finally got to guard the net, before he began to make the most of his one and only chance with the Navy men's lacrosse team, senior goalie Colin Finnegan won over his coaches and teammates with toughness and patience rarely seen by outsiders.
For three years, while Matt Russell anchored the defense as a perennial All-American, Finnegan was the talented backup making his way behind the scenes at practice. He never considered changing positions, as former player Seth DiNola did once Russell took over early in the 2004 season. He only thought about staying on Russell's heels and getting better every day.
"I've never felt comfortable being the backup. I've never really accepted it," Finnegan said. "You feel like you're making a contribution to how we do on game day, but you still have the feeling you're not directly contributing. I had to take a positive attitude. I had to focus on improving my game and helping my team wherever I could."
That approach is serving Finnegan well this spring, in his last go-round with the Midshipmen. As the sixth-ranked Mids prepare for tonight's clash with visiting No. 10 Maryland, another stout Navy defense is being led by another fine goalie, and this time it's Finnegan.
As of Sunday, Finnegan, 5 feet 10, 160 pounds, had allowed only 5.32 goals per game through nine games, tops in Division I. His .667 save percentage was second in the nation. He already has produced three 14-save performances.
Some of that is attributed to a kind early-season schedule that got tougher with last week's 10-9 loss at Georgetown.
But most of it is a credit to the fiery, fundamentally strong St. Mary's High graduate whose father, Ray Finnegan - a 1975 academy graduate and former All-America keeper - has worked as Navy's volunteer goalie coach throughout the 15-year tenure of head coach Richie Meade.
"[Finnegan] played behind Matt Russell for three years and never said anything about it, and I think the defense looks up to him because of it," senior long-stick midfielder Victor Barger said. "He's been waiting his turn.
"We always knew he could step up and play. I don't think any of us thought he would play this well, but he's having an awesome year. It's great to see a kid who's worked for years getting his due."
Finnegan has been building toward this spring ever since he picked up a goalie stick and stuck with it as an elementary school student. Back then, he started attending what became a string of Navy lacrosse camps, where Ray Finnegan tutored goalies of all ages.
Colin sometimes would jump into the net and try to emulate an idol, such as former Navy great Mickey Jarboe, as Mids players would shoot on him.
Finnegan has always craved the competition, just like the small boy who played through a game after breaking his thumb in the net for the Kent Island Comets, just like the youngster who took the losses harder than most.
"The other kids were looking to go to McDonald's or wherever [for a post-game treat]," Ray Finnegan recalled. "Coli was crying because he was [ticked] off and taking [the loss] hard. The two most important qualities in a goalie are mental toughness and physical toughness. How much pain can you endure? Coli never complained about that."
And Finnegan is practiced at being patient. Upon entering St. Mary's, ahead of him on the goalie depth chart were Chris Garrity, then a senior who went on to start for the U.S. men's national team last summer, and Tillman Johnson, then a junior who eventually would lead Virginia to the 2003 NCAA title.
He lettered for two years at St. Mary's, attended the Naval Academy prep school, then ran into the logjam named Russell in Annapolis.
His teammates talk of an emotional leader who is constantly in his defense's ear and has been known to scold himself in the cage after giving up a goal. They also talk fondly of the night Finnegan finally made the position his own.
It happened March 2 against a 3-0 North Carolina team. Finnegan recorded 14 saves, frustrated the Tar Heels throughout and the Mids pulled away to a 19-8 rout.
"[Finnegan] has been in Matt's shadow for all of these years, and that game was his big stepping out," sophomore midfielder Geoff Leone said.
Said Meade: "That game was the testing ground for him. We weren't looking for another Matt Russell. We were looking for a capable goalie, and Coli has given us everything we hoped for. He's had his opportunity, and he's made the most of it so far."