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Cherokee's Ryan pure lightning

His quickness and big-play ability stood out.

Like watching a running back in football, blink and you might miss Mike Ryan's greatness.

He'll show patience and vision, and just when you think you have him contained, he'll burn you.

The Cherokee senior might not have been the fastest soccer player in South Jersey. But he was certainly the quickest.

"His change of speed is really what sets him apart," Cherokee coach Anthony Gallo said. "He'll run with a player and let that player keep up with him - almost like he's baiting him in - and the second he needs that extra gear, he has three or four steps where he can just beat you."

In one of the area's more memorable individual seasons in recent memory, Ryan, the Inquirer player of the year for South Jersey boys' soccer, was known for two things. Besides for his razor-sharp quickness, the forward made a name for himself by scoring big goals in big moments.

Most notably - and there certainly couldn't be a bigger moment - Ryan netted the winner in a come-from-behind effort in Cherokee's Group 4 state-championship win over Bridgewater-Raritan.

"It doesn't get better than that," Ryan said. "They scored an early goal against us in the state championship game, but I knew that we were going to score. You can't think about being down in those situations. The only thing you can think about is scoring your next goal."

Ryan finished the season with 33 goals - a Cherokee single-season record - 11 assists, and a school-record 64 career goals. He led the undefeated Chiefs (25-0-2) to their second consecutive state Group 4 title, marking the first time that feat has been accomplished since Shawnee did it in 1992-93.

"It was a great season," Ryan said. "To be a senior, a captain, to go undefeated, really, what more could you ask for?

"And last year helped so much, especially when it came to those big moments. I really didn't think about the pressure or anything like that. I was able to just focus on putting the ball in the net."

Ryan said most of the pressure he felt came from the expectations he put on himself.

"I obviously had great teammates around me this season. And I wouldn't be able to do what I did unless they got me the ball," Ryan said. "But I hold myself to high standards. Every game, my priority was first to win the game, and second, I needed to score.

"If I didn't score, I felt like I let my team down."

Gallo said one of the biggest improvements he saw in Ryan this year was his ability to manage his emotions when things weren't going his way.

"Mike would get more frustrated with himself in his junior year," Gallo said. "He was much more patient this season. He just really didn't get frustrated this year. And I think that lent himself to being even better on the field, because he didn't allow himself to get upset when things weren't working out."

Ryan will move on to play for Temple.

"He stood on his head this season, and throughout the entire playoffs," Gallo said. "It was just fun to watch him and a joy to coach him these last four years."