Mills looks forward, Rick Wilson looks back - A few Mills memories
The new school year is upon us and certainly the Berkshire League landscape has changed dramatically with the departure of Lewis Mills after 34 years effective at the end of the previous school year. You wish the Spartans well because you want the best for its student-athletes, school and community.
But, while the Spartans are understandably looking forward to their new home in the Central Connecticut Conference (CCC) with a mixture of excitement and a tad of angst that accompanies new opponents and new venues and a divided sentiment regarding the move, how about a final look back.
You don’t spend three-plus decades in a league without leaving some lasting memories of people, players, games and titles. I didn’t see it all, but I saw a lot of it that sticks with me to this day. So here is hardly a history but a few snippets of people, places and games that made a mark with me.
Nowhere will Mills’ absence be more keenly felt than on the soccer field. It is a legacy of excellence and domination, particularly on the girls' side. There were challenges on both sides particularly from Nonnewaug on the boys' side who at times came out on top and always seemed to force the best out of Mills. But so often the Spartans ruled the pitch.
The late Hal Lindert was one of my first introductions to Mills’ brilliance. I used to call Hal the water cooler coach because he sat there watching his team win game after game, season after season perched on the orange water cooler. He had a touch with the ball and kids. He was the BL’s Knute Rockne, losing is what other team’s did. He finished with more than 20 titles and a spot in the Connecticut girls soccer Hall of Fame.
It was also early on I met softball coach Eileen Crompton. She brought a feisty style that BL wasn’t used to not to mention a load of talented players like Heather Baehr, Heidi Law, Karen Kaczynski and so many others. The Spartans had some great battles early on with Bev Lowden’s Thomaston teams that were always a treat to watch. I watched Crompton and her teams win four state titles and her resume included more than more than 400 wins. Her feisty nature added some fire to the league. She wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea but she treated this reporter with respect.
Gentlemanly Ken Hoagland was the girls basketball coach and athletic director for many years during Mills’ tenure in the BL. He had some great basketball teams with likes of the Gallagher sisters, Jackie and Joanne, Karin Crompton, Heidi Law and a cast of others. The problem at the time was those great teams played at the same time Northwestern Regional was ruling the BL.
Coach Fred Williams was winning 141 straight games between 1988 and 1994 and grabbing titles with tax bill regularity. But theSpartans were always there and the battles with the Highlanders left you wanting more.
In more recent times, former coach Joe Capitani was the one coach whose teams constantly pushed Thomaston to the limit. The Golden Bears won seven of eight BL titles between 2010 and 2017, including two state titles and five straight Class S championship game appearances. But it was the Spartans who repeatedly pushed them to the limit, including a memorable victory in Thomaston where his team won in overtime after erasing a 13-point deficit in regulation. Joe was a good coach and a good guy.
Anytime you get to a state title it is special but I saw Matty Kalin become a name the Spartans will never forget when he sank a bomb at the buzzer devastate Portland to win a boys basketball state title at Central Connecticut in front of 3,000 fans in 1996. Those images don’t fade.
The Spartans also built up quite the field hockey reputation. Maggie Tieman turned the field hockey season into the championship season and her battles against Nonnewaug and coach Kathy Brenner were tense and awesome. There was a 2014 Class S state title win over Granby.
I covered the first Mills football game in school history at Muzzy Field and while the struggle to compete continues for the Spartans being there for the birth of a new program left an impression.
Mills had some great venues too that the BL will miss. Really there is nothing better than pristine Nassahegan Park on a crisp fall night. I can still smell the glory of those nights and that was the only place you wanted to be. Put Nonnewaug on the boys' side and Housatonic on the girls' side like a couple of seasons ago with four or 500 crazies and the atmosphere was and is electric.
The Mills gymnasium is not classic but the fan group, “The Thunder Dome” provided its share of electricity over the years.
This was not meant to be an all-inclusive history of the Spartans’ time in the BL. Some sports haven’t been mentioned and a ton of players and coaches who wrote their name into the school and BL record book are far too numerous to mention and not here.
Partially because of space but also simply because that while I covered much, there are many games and teams I did not get to see. And I am sorry I missed these - I was not there when the girl’s soccer team won its first ever state title in 2018, a 2-1 Class M victory over Plainfield on Grace Buchanan’s overtime goal.
Nor was I there when Dylan McCall’s goal with 10 seconds left gave the Lewis Mills boys a 3-2 victory over Suffield in 2017 in one of the great soccer finishes anywhere. You just can’t be everywhere all the time. But I know the Berkshire League was mighty proud.
So Mills moves on. Occasionally down the road you will see the Spartans playing their old BL brethren in some sports as early as this winter. But their day in the BL is done.
However they left some lasting memories. I know, I was fortunate to see a saw of a lot of them and get to know a lot of the players and coaches that created them.