Whalers’ Millsaps commands, demands ... and wins
New London — History and Hollywood teach us that we’re suckers for this narrative: when the few defeat the many. When the Davids believe in the precision of the slingshot.
There was King Leonidas in the ancient Battle of Thermopylae, leading his band of 300 Spartans, fighting to the death against the massive Persian army in 478 B.C.
There was “The Magnificent Seven,” the movie in which a Mexican village, at the mercy of Calvera and the leader of a band of outlaws, hires seven American gunslingers to free them from the bandits' raids.
But then, maybe history and Hollywood share the alliterative boat more than a real life yacht. Too dramatic to be practical, no?
Tammy Millsaps would beg to differ. She’s authored this before, in her coaching days at Capital Prep. Won a state championship with six players in her program. (Yes, six.) And now she’s a win away from hanging another big, green banner at New London High, where Millsaps and her band of seven kids head to the state finals this weekend against Mercy at Mohegan Sun.
Somewhere, her players might chuckle at the irony. To win the title, they must conquer Mercy with a coach who shows none.
Imagine: In the finals with seven kids. No junior varsity. Not enough to practice 5 on 5.
“We've gotten used to it,” Millsaps was saying Tuesday after practice. “There was a point we only had five kids. Somebody was sick or somebody had something to do in class. Somebody didn't come to school that day. I had to get my own mind right.
“But once we had those seven kids in practice consistently, I really thought we had a shot to be pretty good. And that might sound crazy to a lot of people, but I've been in situations at Capital Prep when we had six kids. So you get used to it. But I didn't think I'd ever have to deal with it again.”
And so there were the seven kids Tuesday practicing against three freshmen boys, baseball player Derrell Mitchell, assistant coaches (and former program greats) Cora Sawyer and Jada Lucas and a special guest appearance from alum Cheree Osborne.
Millsaps was on her game.
Fancy the poor guard who did not have her hands up to contest a shot on the perimeter.
“If your hands are there, do you know how much easier it is for the player to shoot?” Millsaps said incredulously.
The player responded with a vacant look.
“Do you not believe me?” Millsaps said. “Do you not believe me? Do we have to be down 20 this weekend for you to believe me?”
This — yes, this — is a practice with Tammy Millsaps. You should know that Tuesday was four or five days before the state championship game. And her two best players were running sprints after practice — several of them — for “doing something dumb this weekend,” Millsaps said.
This invites the question: Is Millsaps too tough? Or are kids today too soft? Here is what sophomore Serenity Lancaster said on the issue after the Whalers won the ECC Division I tournament:
“I don't know. I just think it’s our generation now. They don't really focus on the sports they can do,” Lancaster said. “They just … I don't know … kids our age don't really put their mind into sports. They just do whatever they want.
“I feel like if they get yelled at once they’ll quit. I think our team has played for coach Millsaps enough where we’re used to it. We're used to doing sprints. We're used to her yelling. But it's always out of the love she has for us to push us to be the best we can.”
Millsaps: “I have high expectations. You're not going to come late to practice. When you get here, you’re not going 50 percent effort. Or even just 90 percent. I'm asking you to lift weights twice a week. I'm asking you to come in at 7 a.m. and get shots up for 40 minutes. I'm asking you to watch film in my classroom after you just came out of an exhausting day of academics. And on top of that, practice is demanding.”
Stand back. She’s rolling.
“The kids know what’s in my heart,” she said. “It's easy for somebody to come to a game and sit in the stands and observe a coach on the sideline and think ‘man, she yells too much. She gets on them too much.’ But if you watch me coach, I don't get on kids. I coach them. ‘Ball pressure!’ ‘Get over there!’ I’m not saying ‘you're stupid. What are you doing? You're an idiot.’ That's not how I coach. I am coaching the game through my intensity and passion. And the kids know that because they see it every day. And what kids want is consistency.
“If you're consistent, kids will take it. But if you flip flop — one day you’re soft and the next day you’re hard — the kids think you’re a joke. I am consistent in everything I do. And there's a reputation that comes with that.”
It’s a reputation that follows Millsaps to the classroom, where she teaches a full class load.
“You’re not coming into my room with them cell phones,” she said. “You’re not coming into my room and putting your head down on the desk. You’re not gonna back talk me. You are going to engage me and I’m going to engage you.”
And somewhere, the purists and the old-schoolers weep tears of joy.
Who needs a full roster anyway, right?
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro