Tim Lenahan had never plucked a recruit from his native region of South Jersey since he took over the Northwestern men’s soccer program in 2001.
Lenahan had landed players from North Jersey, New York and Philadelphia, but none from where he grew up.
That changed when Lenahan returned home two years ago and through his South Jersey ties was told of an under-the-radar goalkeeper in Woodbury, N.J. just a 15-minute drive from Lenahan’s old neighborhood in Berlin, N.J.
With size at 6-foot-4, a high soccer IQ and plenty of athleticism, Tyler Miller was the real deal when Lenahan witnessed him play.
Lenahan’s South Jersey background connected with Miller, and Northwestern’s need for a future goalie sold him on packing his bags and venturing to the Midwest to be a part of the Wildcats’ 2011 recruiting class.
Now with Miller’s success in one season at Northwestern, Lenahan may just return home to South Jersey more often. Miller has quickly developed into one of the Big Ten’s premier goalkeepers and was a major factor in the Wildcats winning their first Big Ten title last week.
Miller has gone 9-3-4 as a starter, allowed 0.72 goals per game, has made 40 saves and has had nine shutouts. He also was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week twice.
On Friday, top-seeded Northwestern will play No. 4 Indiana in the Big Ten tournament semifinals in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“We were hopeful he would be able to step in and help us right away,” Lenahan said. “That’s proven to be true. I think first of all you can’t coach size. He’s 6-foot-4 and he’s a pretty good athlete. To have a goalkeeper with that kind of athletic ability, he can run and jump and has good coordination.”
Miller’s recruitment wasn’t that intense. He was invited to play with the New York Red Bulls’ academy team, but it was too far of a drive from his home. He instead played local club soccer, and his recruiting stock was affected by it, according to Lenahan.
Miller was proactive in his recruiting, too, but it didn’t pay any dividends.
“I tried to reach out to as many schools as possible,” Miller said. “I never really heard back. I thought there would be more recruiting interest. I really don’t know why. I didn’t join the academy when I had the opportunity. A lot of the coaches go to the academy events.”
Lenahan discovered Miller by word of mouth.
“I knew from a source in South Jersey that he was the best keeper in that area,” Lenahan said.
Miller wasn’t handed anything at Northwestern he arrived. He sat the Wildcats’ first game against Eastern Illinois. But after Northwestern lost to 2-1 in that game, Lenahan decided to give Miller a shot in the net in the following game against California, which was No. 7 in the nation, at Toyota Park.
Playing a nationally-ranked team in their debut may have frightened some freshmen, but Miller welcomed the opportunity and rose to the challenge. He didn’t face many difficult shots, but he handled what he had to, showed confidence, was able to communicate with his teammates and helped the Wildcats to a 0-0 double overtime tie.
“At Toyota Park, under the lights, on a big stage, and he was really calm, cool and collected,” Lenahan said. “That was definitely a confidence booster. ‘Okay, our goalkeeper worries were behind us.’”
From there on, Miller was Northwestern’s starting keeper and only continued to impress.
Miller’s nine shutouts, which included a 1-0 win over Michigan to secure the conference title, ranks him second in the schools’ single-season list. His 0.72 goals-against average ranks him second in the Big Ten this season and third in Northwestern’s all-time records.
Lenahan is undoubtedly pleased with Miller’s play, but he’s also found it comforting to have another South Jersey native around.
“He roots for the all the Philadelphia teams,” Lenahan said. “I have someone to commiserate with.”