Simply by how the sport of soccer operates, Michael Miller is not the norm.
Players who are 5-foot-10 aren’t normally central defenders. The position is usually reserved for some of the tallest players on the team — and Miller doesn’t have to look far for that in his center back partner in Zak Woolley, a 6-foot-3 freshman from Hawaii with a towering presence that can win aerial duels like it’s no big deal at all.
But a lack of height when compared to others who play the same position doesn’t really mean much to Miller, who’s one of the biggest reasons as to why the Southern Oregon University men’s soccer team has had one of the best defenses in all of the NAIA the last two seasons.
“I hear that a lot,” Miller said of not being the tallest center back there is. “What I try to bring is strength and poise in the back, so that if I have to clean up a situation, I just try to remain calm and keep the guys in it. If I’m going 1-on-1 with somebody, I’m pretty sure I’m going to win that battle every time.”
As much as SOU’s success at the back has been a complete team effort, Miller became the second SOU player in as many seasons to be recognized as the Cascade Conference’s co-Defensive Player of the Year last Friday, following in the footsteps of goalkeeper Wyatt Zabinski who earned the same honor last year.
Not bad for a player like Miller who wasn’t even a defender until he got to Ashland.
That’s right. One of the best defenders in the CCC these days has only really been a defender for less than three years.
As a senior at Edison High School in Fresno, Calif., Miller recorded 50 goals in his four-year prep career, including 20 in his senior season. However, Miller was approached by former SOU head coach Biniam Afenegus about making the switch to defense as a freshman.
The initial reaction was one Miller isn’t afraid to share. “I was like, honestly, ‘Are you crazy?’” Miller recalls with a laugh, adding that his playing style before coming to SOU was much more on the attack rather than coming back to defend.
Miller was first used as a fullback, but then made the switch into the role he finds himself in now — one of the Raiders’ two central defenders in a four-man backline.
“It was kind of shaky at first, and I was just clearing everything because I wasn’t really sure what to do,” Miller said. “The older guys on the team just told me to relax, play like I’m playing in the midfield and find the pass, move the ball around and then on defense to move my feet, close the gaps, don’t give them any space and it will all be fine.”
As much as scoring goals was something that used to get the blood pumping, now preventing the opposition from scoring is where his heart lies.
“I came in with 50 goals (in high school) and I thought I was going to play the No. 9 role here (as a forward),” Miller said. “I honestly just found a new love for the game (as a defender), seeing the game from a different angle and it really helped my defensive game even more. I feel like playing forward really prepared me for this.”
And, when defending an opposing forward, it also helps that Miller can also think like one, too.
“Most of the time, I can predict how things are going to happen, how they’re going to turn out or where the ball might end up on a deflection,” Miller said. “I can put myself in better positions and save the day if I need to.”
It’s most certainly worked.
Only three teams have more shutouts than SOU’s total of 14 entering the Raiders’ first-ever home game in the NAIA National Tournament on Saturday against UC Merced. During conference play, the Raiders allowed all of three goals and trailed in only one game. The Raiders’ defense was the backbone of last season’s team that won the CCC regular-season and tournament titles, and it’s no different this year as well.
The Raiders (16-2-3) will take a 19-game unbeaten streak into the game. Every one of SOU’s shutouts have come along the way after starting Carmichael’s tenure as head coach with two straight losses.
The job that Southern Oregon has done defensively is what Miller takes pride in the most. The postseason award from the conference office is nice, but to get to where they are today is what he’ll talk about rather than the personal accolades.
As Miller said in September, the Raiders work Zabinski hard enough in practice, so they don’t want him to see a single shot in the game.
And for somebody who came to SOU thinking he would be taking on defenders, being one of the leaders in a defense that’s one of the best in the nation is quite a career path.
“Coming here, I was playing as a forward and I just worried about goals ... goals, goals, goals. Now, playing in the back, I worry more about clean sheets,” Miller said. “When we look at the stat sheets and we see that teams are only shooting once or twice a game and maybe only one of those goes on target, that is very, very dear to me. I know the guys feel the same way about it.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.