For nearly a quarter-century, the routine has been the same for the Center Grove High School softball team.
About 30 days before the first practice, players report for conditioning, otherwise known as “hell month.” It is here, on that first day, when the expectation is spelled out in no uncertain terms: Win the state championship.
There is no other goal.
“There’s no mystery when a kid comes into my program what’s going to be expected and what needs to be accomplished, because it’s been the same stuff for so long,” said coach Russ Milligan, who is winding down his 24th season with the Trojans.
“Every year when my girls show up for that conditioning hell month we have before the season begins, they know what to expect,” he said. “They know what to do our first game.
“They know the routine, and they know what has to be accomplished.”
Center Grove has accomplished its state championship objective an IHSAA-record five times. Tonight, the third-ranked Trojans are positioned to do it a sixth time when they play No. 5 Lake Central in the Class 4A final at Ben Davis.
If the Trojans win, they will have twice as many state titles as the next-nearest programs. Andrean, New Palestine, Roncalli and Lake Central each have three.
Moreover, the Trojans are in the state final for a record 10th time. They have been runners-up on four occasions and are bidding for their first championship since 2009, which is also the most recent time they were in the championship game.
Players, particularly the five seniors on the Center Grove roster, are driven to end the title drought.
“When we started the year, our one goal is just to win state,” senior center fielder Courtney Moriarty said. “We’re just determined, and that’s why we’re so successful.”
Senior third baseman Victoria Boyer amplified the sentiment.
“Obviously, it’s what we’ve been working for all year,” she said. “The first day of our workouts coach Milligan comes out and he always says we can win a state championship this year. We’ve heard it for four years now, and we all believe it, and now it’s just our time to execute.
“It’s our time to get it done.”
A unique tradition
Center Grove’s six-year gap between state championship game appearances is not only an eternity by program standards, it’s the longest of Milligan’s career. He guided the Trojans to a runner-up finish in 1992, his first season as head coach, and they’ve regularly contended for titles ever since.
On Milligan’s watch, the Trojans have won four of their five state championships — 1995, 1998, 2003 and, most recently, 2009. The team won it’s first title in 1986, the second year of the IHSAA softball tournament, under coach Rita Robbins.
Milligan not only enhanced what had been a winning foundation but went on to build what has become an incomparable program. No softball team in the state displays more championship and state finalist banners at its home field.
“I even hear parents say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know they’ve won that many times,’” Milligan said. “As far as being a really good team and (being a team opponents) are going to use as a measuring stick, if you beat Center Grove, you must be pretty good, or even play well with Center Grove, that’s great. We’re not the only team like that in the state, but in this particular area we are.
“(Opponents) take it for granted that we’re going to be good, and so do I. But it’s just because of the kids that come through, lots of talent. You wouldn’t have that if we had a whole bunch of .500 years.”
Center Grove has never had a losing season under Milligan. What it has, besides the state championships, are IHSAA-record totals for sectional (20), regional (14) and semistate (six) titles.
“Winning never gets old,” Milligan said. “It’s that competitiveness inside of me that keeps me going and keeps me very excited about it. Once in a while you get that bunch of kids, and it is just once in a while, that have that common goal and can overcome all the distractions and the letdowns of the year. Once in awhile, they realize this is worth it.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment for us. If we win this thing, no can take that away from us, or even take away the fact we’re playing in the championship game. So that’s why we’re here.”
Seizing the moment
Powered by five seniors, the Trojans enter on a roll. They’ve won 23 of their past 24 games and have rallied from deficits in three of six postseason games.
Arguably the state’s most explosive offensive team, they hit .403 collectively and have belted 16 home runs. They are also clockwork efficient defensively and feature one of Class 4A’s top pitchers in senior Abbey Pratt, who is 21-2 with a 1.51 ERA.
But of all their strengths, two stand out above the rest. They expect to win, and — as the postseason to date reflects — they have the poise to win.
“Coach Milligan says the calm team is going to win this game,” senior first baseman Mallory Baker said. “It’s whoever stays calm and cool. Whoever gets riled up or blinks is going to pay for it in the long run, because you can’t take one play off. Lake Central is a good team, but coming (from behind) in three of the last six games, I feel like we’re confident because we know that we can accomplish great things coming back from being behind.
“To have the potential to win this game is very exciting. It’s weird to think that our last high school game is the state championship, and that we have a chance to win that.”
At Center Grove, championship opportunities are a virtual rite of passage. And Milligan is confident the 2015 Trojans are more than up to the challenge.
“We’ve had the talent several times in the last five years to get here,” he said. “But you just have to have a group of seniors, in particular, who say, ‘This is it, and by gosh you (underclassmen) are going to help me get there’ and demand certain things.
“And this group of seniors has done that better than anybody else in the last five years.”
What: IHSAA Class 4A State Softball Final
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Ben Davis High School, 1200 N. Girls School Road, Indianapolis
Teams: Center Grove (28-2) vs. Lake Central (28-6-1)
Other finals: Class A, Hauser (25-4) vs. Carrol (Flora) (24-4), 10:30 a.m.; Class 2A, North Central (Farmersburg) (26-4) vs. Boone Grove (24-3), 1:30 p.m.; Class 3A, Gibson Southern (27-4) vs. Leo (29-2), 4:30 p.m.
CENTER GROVE’S POSTSEASON HISTORY
State championships: 1986, 1995, 1998, 2003, 2009.
Runner-up: 1992, 1996, 2002, 2004
State finals appearances: 1986, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2015.
Semistate championships: 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2015.
Regional championships: 1986, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2015.
Sectional championships: 1986, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2015.
STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME RESULTS
1986;Michigan City Rogers;W 9-2
1992;Lake Central;L 4-2
1996;Turkey Run;L 11-7
1998;Portage (3A);W 4-2
2002;Lake Central (3A);L 8-1
2003;Lake Central (3A);W 2-0
2004;Lake Central (4A);L 4-1;12 innings
2009;Lafayette Harrison (4A);W 2-0