By Joe Davidson
Matt Mills is coaching.
He's offering insight, instruction, life lessons, an impact in high school sports, and to that conclusion, I say - "of course he is." Mills was absolutely meant for this line of work - teaching and coaching, and doing both very well.
To understand this man Mills, to comprehend his inner-core thinking and drive is to appreciate his passion for high school sports.
He's the first-year coach for the Casa Roble Rams girls basketball team, seeded 16th in the Division III field and bracing for the buzz saw that dresses in purple and goes by the name of the Sacramento Dragons, top-ranked by The Bee all season and roaring into the postseason as the prohibitive favorite to repeat as champions.
Mills caught the coaching and teaching bug from his father Wayne, who coached a ton in the Monticello Empire League, mostly football, and was a principal at Vacaville High for years. So much for retirement. Kid Mills got Old Man Mills off the golf course and beaches to help him this season on the bench, and crafty Coach Mills knows the deal here. Matt takes credit for the victories and sticks the losses on the old man.
Now the monstrous task of taking on Sac High. For Mills, there is no fear in his voice. He'd take on Pat Summit and the Tennessee Vols if it didn't violate some sort of CIF rules. On Tuesday, Mills will receive a hearty effort against long odds because his team always competes.
"I've really enjoyed coaching this year, and the girls are great," Mills said. "So are the other coaches. (Sac High coach) Michele Massari has even invited me in the past to her practices. Sac State coaches have done the same thing, to learn new things. Girls coaches are great like that. Boys coaches never do that. They hold things too close to their vest."
To me, Mills resonates class and achievement with everything from a sneer and snarl to broad grins and a good one-liner. He was a basketball grinder at Vintage High School in the early 1990s with a great first step, a trusty jumper and bruises head to toe for crashing into anything - walls, bleachers, foes, family, referees.
He was also quite accomplished in track and field, taking on the sport's most grueling races such as the 400 and 800 meters because he rather enjoyed bolting for one lap or two and then hugging a trash barrel to deposit his senses. He went on to Sacramento State, discovered writing then wondered what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
In 1995, he caught wind that I was looking for part-time help at The Bee in the prep sports department. It wasn't a glamorous gig by any means, a grunt position common for papers across the land of menial tasks such as answering phones, inputting scores, schedules, etc. Papers of our size like to employ up to 12 such grinders.
Mills tracked me down and asked what he could bring to the interview. He insisted that we'd be foolish not to hire him, that he'd outwork all of us one way or another. So I tested him. Asked him to fetch as many rosters for all of the high school basketball playoff teams in the field - boys and girls - for the looming playoffs. We're talking more than 115 rosters - and well before MaxPreps arrived to provide such luxuries. This meant he had to phone coaches who had no idea who he was, or drive to scores of schools.
Four days later, here comes mighty Mills, armed with a sure grin and two bloated binders. One binder for the girls rosters, in order by league, all neatly hole-punched and inserted, and one for the boys. He managed to get a roster for every single school in the playoffs. The guy could have come in bare foot, dressed in coveralls and babbling nonsense and I was going to keep him. Told my boss Tom Negrete if we landed Mills our department would sing.
Mills was gold in our department. He inputted statistics, scores, schedules and standings, all with purpose (and again well before MaxPreps spoiled us with such gifts). He took it personally because he knew this information was well read. What's more, Mills fielded grouchy calls by the dozens about why The Bee didn't cover more hockey and nasty e-mails on coverage and perceived bias.
In other words, we prepared Mills for coaching high school where the joys can be the teenage achievements and the nightmares can be the parents of those teens.
I used Mills like a pack mule inside the office, in the field and on my own time. In 1998, I informed Mills and another one of our golden young college hires in Sam Amick, now covering the NBA inside and out for SI.com, that I needed their help for an exhaustive move of furniture and boxes full of books from one end of Elk Grove to the other. They asked what they'd receive for their efforts. Told them, "job security."
Mills was with us until 2002 - 10 years ago. Still not sure we've fully recovered. Funny thing about Mills. The last two times I moved with extra heavy boxes and couches, he wouldn't return my calls.
Mills' heart finally steered him to teaching and coaching. After bouncing around the region, he's found a home with the Rams in Orangevale. His young team is in the playoffs for the first time since 2007. He has nine players, meaning assistant coach Tim Carroll runs the floor in every practice for a legit 5-on-5. Better Carroll than Mills because Mills' game is shot.
The players call Mills' father Wayne "Grandpa Mills." Grandpa is in charge of the defense, which has allowed an average of 39 points a game. Sacramento averages 39 a half, so guess who is threatening to yank any stipend paycheck perk to the assistant coach if it gets to be a runaway against the Dragons?
Mills raves about his players such as Amber Felicio, a senior guard averaging 12.8 points. Jasmine Vogt is a senior forward who sounds like Mills' kind of player, "she does everything for us - and her motor never idles, let alone stops."
Senior center Tara Prato-Morrison is a 6-3 talent who is "playing the best basketball of her career." She had a triple-double against rival Del Campo with 10 points, 15 rebounds and 11 blocked shots, with Mills adding, "best part was she didn't know what a triple-double was." She does now. Mills needs one more from her - against Sac High.
The coach said he appreciates the efforts of Carlie Marunio, who "loves to take charges." And he has two sophomore starters in point guard Deidre McAuliff and Krystal Aubert, also a superb softball player.
The Rams certainly respect Sac High but they do not fear them. Mills and the fear of a challenge? Unheard of.
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