It’s not like the past 26 years didn’t give Russ Milligan ample time to alter the manner in which he runs the softball program at Center Grove High School.

Milligan smiles, knowing there was little risk of that.

Every bit as demanding of players and coaches now as he was during his inaugural season in 1992, Milligan, a five-time state champion and the career leader in wins among Indiana high school softball coaches, finds himself barreling toward 700 victories.

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The Trojans (10-0), the third-ranked squad in Class 4A, still have 14 games remaining on their regular-season schedule. Also, the annual Johnson County tournament takes place May 13.

In other words, anticipate the next milestone in Milligan’s career sooner rather than later.

Old school to the core, Milligan despite his unprecedented success concedes not all of his coaching moves are embraced.

Quite the contrary, in specific cases.

“Your season is made during cuts. To this day, I still make what many people consider very questionable cuts,” Milligan said. “They consider them questionable because I cut kids who are good softball players.

“But there’s more to life than just being a good, skilled person. It’s coachability. Putting team ahead of self. Just all of the clichés you see written on T-shirts. Only we don’t put them on T-shirts. We just live them.”

Learning from the best

Milligan, who also has guided four Center Grove teams to state runner-up status, is immersed in preparing his current squad for what he hopes is another season extending well into June. His record is an eyebrow-raising 693-91 (.884).

Emily Gwaltney, a four-year starter for Milligan who pitched and played some third base on the Trojans’ 2009 state championship team, was taught early in life to absorb knowledge from individuals who are the best at what they do.

If that means watching Michael Jordan drive the baseline or taking mental notes on a Tiger Woods approach shot, you do it.

Gwaltney watched Milligan study the opponent long before the first at-bat.

“He is great at knowing the other team. When I was there, he and I would sit at the end of the bench and watch the other team warm up. How they threw and how fast they ran,” Gwaltney said. “He already knew what we could do.

“I had a lot of fun. I know he was really hard on us, but we expected that. Coach Milligan was not our friend. He was our coach.”

{&subleft}Born to coach

Born in the Upper Peninsula city of Escanaba, Michigan, Milligan’s family moved downstate to St. Joseph when he was 2. He later lived a few years in Memphis, Tennessee, before relocating to Goshen as a 13-year-old. Milligan played football and baseball at Concord High School. He went on to graduate from Wabash College with a biology degree.

Because of Milligan’s gruff nature, it’s been known to surprise people that he teaches chemistry classes at Center Grove High School.

Four years working at Frankfort High School (1986-90) gave Milligan the opportunity to channel his love of sports into being an assistant for the Hot Dogs’ football and baseball programs.

He came to Center Grove desiring to be one of the school’s baseball assistant coaches. When that didn’t happen, Milligan set his sights on applying for the just-vacated head softball position.

The rest is history.

“One thing that has made coach Milligan successful over the years is tradition. From the beginning of his coaching career until now, he sticks to the same routine that has brought him five state titles,” said Abbey Pratt, the ace pitcher for Center Grove’s 2015 Class 4A state champs.

“Honestly is another reason why he is successful. He plays the best nine on the field and is confident those nine will get the job done.”

Kimmy Sullivan, a 2013 Center Grove graduate currently wrapping up her senior softball season at the University of Notre Dame, said it’s the expectations associated with the program that ultimately produce positive results.

“Coach Milligan holds each player to a standard of excellence and never lets anyone settle for less than their best,” Sullivan said. “He instills in his team a sense of tradition and pride in wearing the Trojan uniform.

“This achievement shows his passion and commitment to the program, and I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to play for him.”

{&subleft}A winning formula

Center Grove’s exhaustively impressive list of softball accomplishments are testament to a multitude of factors. Among them are Milligan’s undying loyalty to a singular program, the commitment put forth by hundreds of young ladies through the years and the support demonstrated by the Center Grove community and school administration.

It’s also the coach’s willingness to listen.

“There were growing pains,” Milligan said. “My first year I had a young lady named Stacia Stewart and another one named Nicole Johnson that were really far ahead of the curve. Stacia pitched and Nicole was a catcher, so it was a good combination.

“Even though they did everything I asked them to do in as screwed-up manner as I asked them to do it, they would sometimes just very nicely suggest a different way. I’ve never been so egocentric that I couldn’t listen to a kid that had a suggestion.”

Led by Stewart and Johnson, that ’92 club made it to the state championship game before losing to Lake Central, 4-2. The Trojans finished with a record of 26-4, with the coach adding that “three of those losses were in my first two weeks because of my ignorance.”

Milligan isn’t coaching high school softball at the highest level to make friends or enhance his reputation in any way. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t count many softball coaches or former coaches as friends.

Former Warren Central coach Dave Stroud is one of the few.

Stroud, who started the Warriors’ program in 1980 and led it to a state championship five years later, amassed 391 wins of his own. None of those victories came against Milligan’s squads.

Yet when the call came for Milligan to enter the Indiana High School Softball Hall of Fame in 2010, it was Stroud who introduced him.

“The first six or seven times we played, we lost to Center Grove by one run. And then they beat us in the 1995 semistate 8-6 and went on to win state,” said Stroud, who retired from coaching following the 2004 season.

“With Russ, his teams are just so prepared and his expectations are high. He isn’t out there to make friends with the other coaches. He’s out there to win.”

Russ Milligan bio

THE MILLIGAN FILE

Name: Russ Milligan

Age: 53

Born: Escanaba, Michigan

Family: Wife Alisha; sons Jake, 23, and Alex, 18

High school: Concord (1982)

College: Wabash College (1986)

Major: Biology

Career record: 693-91

State champions: 1995 (33-1), 1998 (3A, 35-2), 2003 (3A, 29-6), 2009 (4A, 33-3), 2015 (4A, 29-2)

Runners-up: 1992, 1996, 2002 (3A), 2004 (4A)

Author photo
Mike Beas is a sports writer for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at mbeas@dailyjournal.net.