Derek Mills has been sitting on the bench again. However, it is definitely not from lack of soccer skills.
Mills, a returning varsity forward, sat out the first seven games of last season for eligibility reasons. But, when he played in the remaining 11 games, Mills piled up 14 goals and four assists to become the team's leading scorer. Not surprisingly, he earned the title of NCAA Freshman of the Year.
Unfortunately, Mills tore cartilage in his right knee while playing soccer last May, and has not been fit enough this season to reclaim his starting position.
"I'm trying to get fit," Mills said. "It's hard, because I couldn't do anything for four months."
Mills was kicked in the knee and had orthoscopic surgery. Consequently, he couldn't run or play soccer all summer, and has spent most of this season rehabiliting his injured knee.
However, Mills remains optimistic. He has been playing more and more in each game, and played 90 minutes in the Crimson's overtime win over Boston College last Tuesday night. He also scored two goals in Harvard's 8-0 victory over Brandeis.
Coach Mike Getman plans to wait to start Mills until he's compltely healthy, and believes the sophomore will see full action within a week or two. In the meantime, Getman subs Mills in and out with the two starting forwards.
"It would be nice to have him ready to go," said Getman. "But he understands why he's not starting. His fitness is holding him out, not me."
"The more he plays, the more excited he gets and the better he gets," Getman added.
The Crimson (4-0-2) has been doing well, despite the loss of Mills as a starter. However, the squad looks forward to having him back full time.
"He makes our attack click," said senior forward Nick Hotchkin. "He is an excellent player who played a big role in our success last year."
Mills remains confident, and is not worried about his late start.
"Last year, I had to establish a place on the team," he said. "This year, people know what I can do, and I just have to do it again."
However, Mills is not resting on his laurels. He works hard at soccer practice every day, and works out on a Cybex machine and an exercise bike to strengthen his knee. His goal is not to win titles, but to regain his starting position and help his team recapture the Ivy title and repeat another NCAA Final Four appearance.
A native of Scotland, Mills has been playing soccer all of his life. "As soon as you can walk, you start playing soccer," he said.
At eleven years old, he began playing on school teams, and played on a Boys' Club Celtic team throughout high school. In the spring of 1986, he practiced and played seven games with a professional team, the Glasgow Celtics. His affiliation with the Scottish team led to his seven-game ineligibility during his freshman year with the Crimson.
The Glasgow Celtics were so impressed with Mills' playing that it offered him a professional contract. Although he was lured by the prospect of playing professionally, Mills decided instead to come to Harvard and continue with his education while he played soccer.
Mills is used to playing soccer from August to May in Scotland. Since Harvard's season only runs through the fall, Mills plays soccer in the spring for Lowell United, a local team. It was in a game with Lowell last spring that he hurt his knee.
Mills is considering playing professional soccer when he graduates from Harvard, but for now he's just concentrating on this season.
"I don't like to look ahead," Mills said. "I believe you're only as good as your last game."
Coach Getman, however, has great hopes for Mills.
"Derek is one of the most creative people you will see on the soccer field," he said. "He has the potential to be one of the top players in the country."
The coach and team members consider Mills a valuable presence on the squad as well as a talented player.
"Derek is an exceptional person all-around," Getman said. "He's funny, likable, and doesn't have a big head. He's a positive influence on the bench as well as on the field."
"He's experienced and knows what the right things are to do in the right situations," said senior Captain Mark Pepper. "He's also fun to play with."
Mills would like to start again, but feels no animosity toward the other starting forwards. He feels Getman's system of substituting all three of them works well.
"There's a good team spirit, especially among the forwards," Mills said. "We laugh and joke. There's some healthy competition."
As for leading the team in scoring again, Mills will have to wait for his knee to be healthy again and see how the season goes for him and the Crimson. However, there is no doubt that he will be able to make an important contribution to the team.
"He makes himself some amazing chances," Hotchkin said. "He won't be on the field and not score goals."