Nick Taylor despised UCF not that long ago.
Just six months ago, then-sophomore forward Gino Vivi converted the final penalty kick, getting the Knights their third win over SMU that season and granting them entry into the American Athletic Conference Tournament Championship match.
As the Knights dogpiled Vivi in the northwest corner of the pitch, the SMU Mustangs were just beginning to process that their season had just ended. And for senior Nick Taylor, he thought his collegiate career just ended.
“We, at SMU, lost three times to UCF, and, at that moment in time, I thought it was my last season,” Taylor said after a 3-2 home win over Tulsa. “So, for me, I felt like UCF kind of ripped something away from me. I’ve cried on this field a couple of times because of that.”
It’s funny how life works sometimes, because in his return to Dallas on Saturday (A 2-1 UCF victory), Taylor had two shots on goal for the very team that “ripped something away” from him.
The reason Taylor had the opportunity to play one more season in the first place came courtesy of the NCAA Division I Council, which granted all fall sports athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic in August 2020. So, after this spring’s season ended, the only question was where should he spend it?
Then, Taylor got a phone call.
UCF Knights Associate Head Coach Paul Souders was no stranger to Taylor. Not only are both men Dallas natives (Taylor’s hometown, Coppell, Texas, is a suburb of Dallas), but Souders also recruited Taylor to New Mexico out of high school. However, before the start of Taylor’s freshman season, Souders accepted an assistant coach position in Orlando.
However, Taylor said the two had stayed in contact since then, and now Souders was recruiting him for the second time. This time, Souders was asking Taylor to switch sides in the UCF-SMU Men’s Soccer rivalry and leave his hometown school, the team that Taylor said he went to watch as a kid. And that’s exactly what Taylor did.
“I know that [Souders] has my best interest in mind for me,” Taylor said. “I know [UCF] fits my playstyle the best and I just thought that this school and this team bring out the best of me.”
Upon Taylor’s arrival in Orlando in the summer, he ended up becoming friends with junior midfielder Robbie Soronellas, who said the two bonded because they were the only native English speakers in their respective dorms. However, the two also had another commonality: They were both transfers.
“It’s kind of like a breakup,” Soronellas said. “You have people that you’ve grown really close to for years, and it’s pretty much just, ‘See ya later, yo!’”
If transferring schools is like a breakup, then facing off against your former school is akin to being invited to a party that you know your ex is going to attend as well. Soronellas also knows that feeling, since he played his former team, North Florida, earlier in the season.
“You go in during warmups and you remember when you were on the other side,” Soronellas said. “You’re looking across and you’re seeing all your friends and you’re like, ‘I have to play these guys.’ It’s a really odd feeling, something I’ve never experienced before.”
“You want to say it’s just another game but, deep down, everyone knows it’s not.”
While Saturday was the first time Taylor took the pitch against a former school, this is not his first time transferring. He spent his freshman season with the New Mexico Lobos under then-head coach Jeremy Fishbein.
“He was just a really dynamic attacking player, smart kid,” Fishbein said. “Maybe hadn’t had the same club exposure that some other top players have, so there’s a little bit of a learning curve, I think, for him, but just an incredible talent.”
Living in Albuquerque, Taylor said, provided him with a new perspective on his hometown. Thanks to his time there, he said he now knew what people had meant when they said Dallas is a “bubble.”
“It is very kind of closed to the outside world, in a way,” Taylor said. “Albuquerque, on the other hand, is very different, almost a complete 180. There’s a lot of poverty and people there treat life differently and I learned there to appreciate the things that I have, the things that I’m able to do, and the privileges that I have.”
Unfortunately, Taylor was playing for a dead program walking. The University of New Mexico’s Board of Regents voted to cut the team in July 2018, though it would not occur until after the 2019 season. So, after his sophomore season in fall 2018, Taylor returned to his hometown and spent the next two seasons playing for the Mustangs.
Now in Orlando, Taylor said that he’s found the City Beautiful is a mix of things he’s seen in Dallas and Albuquerque. He noted that the city has more “genuine people” and he appreciates how people were a lot more inclusive, understanding, and open-minded.
If anyone told him that he would go to three different colleges back when he was in high school, Taylor said, he would have called them crazy. Yet, it ended up giving him a diversity of experiences that made him into the player he is today.
“Going from three different schools and being in three different places, and living in three different places has allowed me to kind of expand my perspective as a person, and I guess as a player as well,” Taylor said.
That evolution can be seen through how the UCF Men’s Soccer team talk about him.
“He’s brought a lot of experience, a lot of maturity, to the team and we’re happy that he’s here with us,” Senior midfielder, and team captain, Mauricio Villalobos Vega said.
Head Coach Scott Calabrese, who was unable to travel with the team to Dallas after testing positive for COVID-19, praised Taylor’s work ethic after the team’s victory over Tulsa. He recalled a time where Taylor was leaving the field and saw him doing extra work, “just trying to perfect his craft.”
“He’s been so good and so productive when you see the assists and the goals, but I think it really comes down top Nick’s process,” Calabrese said. “Nick, every week, comes in and wants to watch video and wants to watch with the coaches and understand ‘What is it that I can do better? What did I do well that I want to repeat?’”
Soronellas has similar thoughts about his friend, though he also said Taylor has a lot of energy as well.
“He’s always goofing around or doing something because he’s full of life,” Soronellas said. “It’s kind of inspiring to the team because you got a guy that comes in every day and just works hard and keeps his head down, you know. He just grinds it out.”
That hard work has led to a player that is tied for 3rd-most assists in the nation (as of prior to Saturday) this season (8).
Now, Taylor finds on the other side of a rivalry that he said is even stronger than the War on I-4.
“I will do anything in my power that I can do to not lose that game because it does mean a lot to me, it means a lot to them,” Taylor said last week after the Tulsa match. “I know on the SMU side, they hate UCF, hate UCF’s guts.”
It was certainly a new experience for SMU head coach Kevin Hudson.
“It’s obviously a bit strange playing against a former player,” Hudson said. “Nick is in great form and has played exceptionally well this year.”
Maya Angelou said in 2011 that we are the sum total of everything we’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, and forgot. After a nearly four-year collegiate journey eastward, Taylor is spending his final season as a Knight, taking all of his experience as a Lobo and a Mustang with him.
Taylor said that his two seasons in New Mexico helped him learn more about the reality of college soccer, develop his soccer IQ, and gain the confidence in himself that he could play at the collegiate level. SMU developed him further, especially in his mentality. Yet, joining UCF, the very team he once detested, was what allowed him the opportunity to express himself “to the highest degree.”
“UCF is just the opportunity for me to kind of take everything I’ve learned and just display it as best as I can, and then just see where it goes from there,” Taylor said.
Taylor will get one more opportunity to face off against his former team when the Mustangs come to Orlando on Halloween night.
Watch Nick Taylor’s post-game availability after a 3-2 win over Tulsa here: