DENVER (AP) - Zach Miller has been cradling a lacrosse stick since his father placed a miniature version in his crib as an infant.
The University of Denver sophomore can’t recall an occasion growing up on the Allegany Indian Reservation in western New York when he didn’t have a lacrosse stick close to him. He took it with him to school, movies, even to bed. That stick became his ticket out West to work toward a college degree and a way to serve as an example for the next generation of Native American players back home.
On the field, Miller’s fancy stick work has helped the Pioneers (14-2) advance to the quarterfinal round of the NCAA tournament. They will face Ohio State (12-6) on Saturday in the second of two games at Mile High, home of the Denver Broncos. Notre Dame (11-2) also plays Albany (16-2).
“I don’t think I’d be in college right now if not for lacrosse,” said the 19-year-old Miller, who is studying communications. “Lacrosse has opened countless doors for me.”
Miller, who is trying to encourage participation in lacrosse by fellow Native Americans, began playing the game when he was 3 years old after his father organized a local team.
It was love at first twirl of his stick. He was recruited by several elite lacrosse programs such as Virginia, Cornell and Syracuse. But Denver and the West appealed to him, in part because of coach Bill Tierney, who won six national titles with Princeton before venturing to the Mile High City in June 2009.
The soft-spoken Miller is known for his scoring panache. That and his long ponytail, which he’s been growing for years and now stretches to the bottom part of the numeral on his No. 33 jersey.
“It’s part of our culture, but you don’t really see a lot of Native Americans with (a ponytail) anymore,” said Miller, who has Seneca Nation ancestry. “It’s something I want to keep forever.”
Miller had a phenomenal freshman season in 2014, scoring 38 goals as the Pioneers advanced to the Final Four before losing to Duke.
He then suited up for the Iroquois National Team at the world championships in Denver last July. The Iroquois represent the Haudenosaunee - an Iroquois Confederacy of the Oneida, Seneca, Mohawk, Tuscarora, Cayuga and Onondaga nations, whose land stretches from upstate New York into Ontario, Canada.
Miller helped propel the Iroquois to a third-place finish, scoring two goals in the final contest. It was the highest finish for the men’s squad at worlds.
“I can’t wait to see how Zach keeps progressing. Denver will get him to where he needs to be,” said Gewas Schindler, the general manager of the Iroquois National squad last summer. “He’s getting better every season and he’s on everyone’s radar.”
So much so that Miller had to transform his game this season. With opponents keying on him, Tierney needed Miller to become more of a distributor than a goal scorer.
Miller has 22 goals and 29 assists as the Pioneers have rattled off 10 straight wins since losing on the road to Ohio State 13-11 on March 14. He certainly came up big against Notre Dame earlier in the season, scoring the game-winner in overtime.
“The things Zach does are not by design. He just figures it out,” said Tierney, who is 80-25 with Denver after spending more than two decades at Princeton. “Like how he figured out he’s a good passer because (teams) are paying a lot more attention to him.
“He’s at the next step. … He’s grown.”
These days, Miller wants to keep growing the game among young Native American players. When he’s back home, he frequently chats with kids and throws the ball around with them any chance he gets.
“I want them to make it their goal to go off to college as well, use lacrosse to get them there,” Miller said.
Miller has a daughter who just turned a year old. The first things he put in her crib?
A lacrosse stick, of course.
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