Before last weekend’s season opener against Bucknell, as he prepared to anchor the Maryland men’s lacrosse defense, goalie Danny Dolan thought back to the time that had elapsed since his last start — almost three years.

It wasn’t until the opening whistle that Dolan began to ease into his new role as one of the key players on one of the nation’s best teams.

After spending his first two years at UMass and his next two campaigns on the bench in College Park, Dolan is stepping into the starting role for the Terps as a fifth-year senior. The lessons he learned over his first four years of college allow him to guide the defensive unit without missing a beat.

“It was a long, long journey to get here,” Dolan said. “Reflecting back, leading up to the game, of where I was almost three years ago was just crazy to think about. As the game went on, just realizing that I’m here, I’m doing it.”

[Read more: With a career lined up, Louis Dubick settles into his senior year with Maryland lacrosse]

Dolan made 10 saves in the second half to help Maryland pull away from Bucknell in the final 30 minutes, keeping the Bison at bay during an 11-6 win.

“He got a little more comfortable, certainly, as the day went on,” Tillman said. “Goalie’s such a unique position. To me, it’s a lot like a pitcher or quarterback. If you get a little bit too hyped, it can be counter-productive. So, I think for him, just kind of things calming down a little bit.”

Three years ago, Dolan was playing for UMass, where he made two starts. After electing to transfer, he set his sights on Maryland, a program he grew up a fan of and always wanted to play for.

Dolan got into contact with then-senior defenseman Tim Muller, a family friend from Dolan’s hometown of Garden City, New York. Then, Dolan reached out to coach John Tillman to try to arrange his arrival.

[Read more: Maryland men’s lacrosse used its depth to overcome a slow start against Bucknell]

The 6-foot-1 netminder couldn’t transfer to Maryland in fall 2016, instead joining the team during the following semester, just weeks before the Terrapins went on their run to the program’s first national title since 1975.

When Dolan arrived, he was the backup to Dan Morris, who defended the goal for that national championship campaign as well as last year’s final four run.

Dolan made two appearances over the past two seasons, both coming late in lopsided Maryland wins.

During his time as a backup, Dolan frequently stayed late after practice to help shooters sharpen their game. Tillman and Dolan said seeing those extra shots from players like 2018 Tewaaraton finalist Connor Kelly helped him become a better goalie.

Dolan also observed and pulled elements of Morris’ game and incorporated them into his own. And the support from Morris hasn’t ended after Maryland’s tournament loss to Duke — Morris returned to College Park in the fall to finish his master’s and picked up where he left off with giving Dolan pointers, which continues even as Morris plays for the New York Lizards of Major League Lacrosse.

After Morris’ final season, the coaching staff held an open competition in the preseason to determine who would take the reins in goal. In the end, Tillman gave Dolan the nod because of his experience and performance in practice.

Dolan’s wealth of experience — including an 18-save performance in 2016, to help lead the Minutemen to an upset of No. 4 North Carolina — means he has an understanding for defensive alignments and responsibilities, the team says.

“He’s the life of our defense,” said defenseman Curtis Corley, Dolan’s roommate. “He really understands what we’ve got to do as a defense, so he’s a really good addition to have in there.”

In his first start with Maryland, anchoring the defense of the No. 3 team in the nation, Tillman noted how the fifth-year goalie got better as the game progressed, with all but one of his saves coming in the second half.

Now that Dolan has shaken off a bit of the rust and with his long-awaited first start for Maryland out of the way, he can focus on the rest of the season. He’ll look to carry the comfort level and momentum from the second half into Saturday’s matchup against Richmond at Maryland Stadium.

“There’s just something about getting one under the belt,” Dolan said. “Having it feel real … is just going to be good heading forward for me.”