South Fayette grad Miller helps lay foundation for Westminster men's lacrosse
When Westminster went looking for a coach to guide its first-year men's lacrosse team, it needed someone with the capability to take a rag-tag group of players — some with experience, more without — and mold it into a cohesive unit.
The administration selected Patrick Geiger.
He played lacrosse at Army, where he graduated in 2005, and served 15 months in Iraq as an infantryman between 2007-08. His knowledge of the sport and propensity for military discipline made him perfect for the task of building the program.
When Geiger went looking for a leader for his fledgling team, he needed someone to set an example for a rag-tag group of players that would become the foundation of the program.
The coach selected Colton Miller.
Miller was the perfect embodiment of the team. The South Fayette grad had no lacrosse experience, but he was willing to learn. He was willing to work tirelessly — “Guys make the mistake of going with him to do workouts, and they immediately regret it,” Geiger said — and what he lacked in textbook skills he made up for with passion.
As the only senior on a roster with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores, Miller seemed like a natural choice for captaincy. But it took more than age to impress Geiger.
“I made it clear to these guys that just because you're an upperclassman or a senior doesn't mean you get to be captain,” Geiger said. “He just stepped up. I liked him as a young man and his leadership, so I made him captain.”
Miller said he was enamored with lacrosse despite never playing. He competed with the South Fayette track and field team for three years, swam for a season and played soccer for a season.
“I was never a star performer in any of them,” he said.
He also enjoyed watching hockey, though he never learned to skate. That was part of the attraction of lacrosse: It had the physical nature of hockey while being played on a field like soccer. No ice skates required.
But since neither South Fayette nor Westminster had a lacrosse team, he figured his chance to try the sport might never arrive.
In November 2014, Westminster revealed it would add men's lacrosse for the 2015-16 academic year. Two months later, Geiger was hired after serving at as an assistant coach at SUNY Brockport near Rochester, N.Y.
Miller saw his long-awaited opportunity and was one of the first prospective players to meet with Geiger.
“This was my one chance to give it a shot,” Miller said. “Coach Geiger, I thought I could learn a lot from a guy like him. He's not your typical coach.”
Last spring, the team started at ground zero, and Miller was further behind than most. He never even had held a lacrosse stick. Seneca Valley graduate Danny Mercer, then a freshman, helped to school Miller in the basics.
Geiger, meanwhile, was trying to get the group up to speed, using whatever alchemy necessary to turn his loosely knit group of wannabes into a legitimate lacrosse team.
“It was like herding cats,” Geiger said. “The comparison I like to use is: It was like teaching guys how to play hockey, but they don't know how to ice skate. We started with stick skills, and we really didn't get into any game rules or anything like that.
“We just did stick work. If you can't pass and catch, you can't play the game.”
Gradually, the players started to refine their skills and understand the strategies. Miller found a home as a defensive midfielder, a player responsible not only for cutting off an opponent's angle to the goal but also triggering the offense by rushing the ball toward the other end.
“You know you've done your job if the offense gets the ball and starts running a play,” he said.
Geiger admitted he had low expectations for the Titans' first season. He wasn't shooting for a particular number of wins. In fact, he wasn't sure the team would win a single game.
That notion was put to rest immediately when Westminster opened with an 8-5 victory over Medaille. The Titans also won their second game, routing Defiance, 19-7.
There was a bit of a reality check after that as the Titans dropped their next four to stand at 2-4 through April 13. Miller remained philosophical about the recent rough patch.
“We see ourselves almost like the 300 Spartans against the Persian army,” he said. “We're such an underdog team. We have seven or eight subs at any one time, and most D-III teams we're going against have double and sometimes triple the subs.
“But the struggle is really making a strong foundation, and I know this team is going to be the one to beat pretty soon.”
Miller said he still gets lost in some of the rules and in his positioning on the field at times, but his skills are light years from where they were a year ago. In Geiger's words, he “looks like a lacrosse player.”
Miller's only regret is he didn't start playing the sport sooner. Down the road, however, he said he might try to join a men's league, and he hasn't dismissed the possibility of becoming a coach.
Though his college career will be a brief one, he can take satisfaction in knowing he helped get the Westminster men's lacrosse team rolling in the right direction.
“This year was all about the foundation, laying the bedrock on which to build this program,” Geiger said. “(Miller) has been a huge part of that.”
“This team is going to be an elite Division III lacrosse program,” Miller said. “I'd say within five years, it will be amazing how far they go.”