The C. Milton Wright boys soccer team was up a goal against Harford County rival Bel Air early in the second half a couple of weeks ago when Bobcats midfielder Ethan Lassen broke free down the right side with a chance to tie the game.
What Lassen saw next was imposing: the Mustangs’ 6-foot-2, close-to-200-pound senior goalkeeper, Ryan Miller.
What made matters worse for Lassen was that Miller was well positioned off the goal line, making him look that much bigger and further limiting any room to score.
Lassen reached the penalty area and sent a hard shot from 16 yards, but it went harmlessly into Miller’s hands. The No. 4 Mustangs (9-1-2) went on to claim a 2-0 win in what was then their most important game of the regular season.
For Miller, a four-year starter, two-year captain and All-Metro first-team selection last season, those are the moments he enjoys most.
“Dealing with the pressure in big games, you got to expect it,” he said. “You know it’s coming, so you can’t shy away from it. You have to embrace it. I love it.”
Miller had a tough act to follow when he joined the varsity team as a freshman in 2014: his brother, Colin, who is now a standout junior goalkeeper at Providence.
When Colin was in goal for the Mustangs, Ryan would get out of school early to run the lines as one of the team’s ball boys. He would closely watch his older brother work, from how he communicated with his teammates and coaches, to how he came out to defend against corner kicks to how he responded after he gave up a goal.
“Watching him made me want to play in goal and I fell in love with it,” Ryan said. “He definitely laid a good foundation for me, playing the position the right way.”
It shows, as he’s developed into the Baltimore area’s most complete goalie, with all the physical tools and game sense.
This season, he has 59 saves and six shutouts, allowing just nine goals. He’s also the leader of a team that has a quality senior class and talented underclassmen mixed in. Fifth-year coach Brian Tully, a 2003 C. Milton Wright grad who has served in the program for 10 years, needs time to rattle off the lengthy list of qualities that have made Miller the goalie he is today.
And while his physical stature, athleticism and knack for making big saves stand out, it’s other intangibles that help the Mustangs win.
“His growth as a leader in terms of how to motivate and setting a standard for himself that he holds other guys to as well” stand out, Tully said. “That’s why the guys buy into him, because he has higher expectations of himself, as he does for anyone else, and that feeds into everything else.”
Asked for his thoughts on playing against Miller, Bel Air coach Dominic Rose said: “My first thought is: ‘I’ll be glad when you graduate.’
“The thing with Ryan is, it’s hard to game plan against a goalkeeper of that caliber at the high school level. … He basically is the difference-maker for that team. You have to deal with all their other players around him, and when you can break that down, then there’s Ryan. We had three or four one-on-ones, and you have to be perfect. That’s kind of what he does. So going into a game, no matter how much you tell your players about it, it’s already in their heads: ‘I’ve got to be perfect.’ ”
The reassurance from Miller’s dominant play — Tully calls it “a strong comfort level” — allows the Mustangs to play an attacking style that puts pressure on opponents.
“Ryan’s going to make a lot of saves your average or even better-than-average high school goalkeeper is not going to be able to make, so that gives us a lot of confidence to play more of an offensive style from our formation to how we try to build up our attack,” Tully said. “We can do some things that we couldn’t if we didn’t have a sure-handed goalie.”
Senior forward Brett Lindsey, a fellow captain, has had a first-hand look at all of the time Miller has spent polishing his play and how he motivates the rest of the team.
“We just feel safe with him back there,” Lindsey said. “I feel like if we had any other goalie, we wouldn’t have the same confidence. It’s just his confidence level — you don’t expect a mistake out of him.”
Miller, who committed to St. John’s in September, knows what it takes to win a championship. He’s determined to help the Mustangs bring home the program’s first state title.
This summer, he won a national championship on his club soccer team, Baltimore Celtic SC 2000. Also a basketball player at C. Milton Wright, he was part of school history as a sophomore when the Mustangs claimed the program’s first crown. He understands the hard work that needs to be put in, the chemistry that needs to be found and how everybody needs to do their share to reach their goal.
Tully has been impressed with his team’s daily focus and approach. The Mustangs have played well against formidable competition, earning a 2-2 tie against No. 1 Archbishop Curley and taking a halftime lead over No. 2 McDonogh before falling for the first time this season, 2-1, on Oct. 9.
The goal is to be ready for November, when another chance at a state championship arrives. The program has been to three state title games, the last coming in Miller’s sophomore year, in 2015.
Miller is aware of the high expectations and, like being the one to make the game-changing save, is savoring the challenge. He wants to win a state title not only for himself and his teammates, but also for his brother, Colin, and the other players at C. Milton Wright who came close.
“Being the first one to bring a state championship back would mean everything because that’s what I’ve been working for the past four years,” he said. “We need to break through. We need to do it.”