Wyatt Muller does not mind the pressure that comes with being the last line of the defense for the Newport Harbor High boys' water polo team.
Last year he was a backup goalie for the Sailors. Koby Yokota, who is now at Pepperdine, had the starting role.
This year, Muller knew the starting job was his. In the summer, at the USA Water Polo Junior Olympics, Muller showed everyone he was up for it.
Muller had a standout tournament up in the Bay Area, helping Newport Beach Water Polo Club earn bronze in the 18-and-under division. Without Muller, that bronze wouldn't have been possible. He said he blocked two penalty shots at the end of a quarterfinal shootout win over Foothill.
"It was great," Muller said. "It was my first big, big tournament, so there was more pressure and stuff. It was awesome just getting to place."
The place for Muller is between the pipes for the No. 2 team in CIF Southern Section Division 1. He had another strong tournament last weekend, when he made 44 saves in the South Coast Tournament. In the semifinals against Loyola he made a career-high 13 stuffs, including a huge stop on Loyola senior center Chancellor Ramirez in the final 30 seconds that helped preserve a 9-8 win.
In the final, Muller made nine saves as the Sailors stayed with Mater Dei until the end, when the Monarchs scored three late goals to earn a 7-4 victory.
Muller has been strong in goal, strong mentally too. He has battled through some early-season tendinitis and tight IT bands. Muller said the pain in his knees, which caused him to miss the season opener, is mostly gone. He is getting into better shape.
"I'm getting pretty close," Muller said. "I would say I'm 80-85% right now … I'm starting to get back into a routine."
Sailors Coach Robert Lynn noticed a pattern in his goalie last weekend.
"The second half was always stronger than the first," Lynn said. "Mentally, I'm sure he went through a process where he started out ginger early in the game, but he started strengthening up and got more determined. You could tell his mind got more into the game; I would say that's fortitude. He showed a lot of courage and played hurt. To me, that's leadership right there."
Muller is no stranger to water polo, the sport he started playing nine years ago. He played in the field for two years before switching to goalie.
Mullers are familiar in the Newport Harbor Aquatics program. But Wyatt said he's not related to J.P. Muller, who graduated when he was a freshman, or Paisley Muller, who was a senior last year on the CIF champion girls' water polo team.
Wyatt has two younger brothers, and both play football. Owen is a cornerback on the Sailors' junior varsity team, and Charlie is a safety on the freshman team.
In a way, all three Mullers represent a last line of defense.
Wyatt already has excelled for the polo team. He also was key in a 10-9 nonleague victory over Long Beach Wilson on Sept. 11, when he blocked one five-meter penalty shot and had another one glance off the right post.
Muller and the Sailors held the Bruins to two goals in the second half.
"He's always positive," Lynn said. "He's doing good things and leading the team with his determination, so it's good."
Muller said he recognizes that it's a team effort. Lynn and assistant coach Pavle Filipovic have been pushing the Sailors (7-1) hard and they have responded, even as they've been without a pool this week.
The pump broke at the Newport Harbor pool, so the Sailors have been practicing at Corona del Mar in the mornings and Costa Mesa High at night.
Muller has been dealing with the flu this week as well. But his play for Newport Harbor so far has definitely been sick, and he looks forward to the next level as well.
"I'm planning on playing in college," Muller said. "It's not the end of the world if I don't play in college, but I love this sport. It builds great people."
Great people, and great leaders like Wyatt Muller.
Born: Oct. 3, 1994
Hometown: Newport Beach
Weight: 170 pounds
Sport: Water polo
Coach: Robert Lynn
Favorite food: Pasta
Favorite movie: "Horrible Bosses"
Favorite athletic moment: Blocking two penalty shots at the end to help Newport defeat Foothill in an 18-and-under quarterfinal match at this year's Junior Olympics.
Week in review: Muller helped Newport Harbor finish a strong second at the South Coast Tournament. He had 44 saves in the five-game tournament, including a season-high 13 in a semifinal win over Loyola.