Hall of Fame Coach Russ Milligan
Commemorating Two State Champions
It’s been 25 years since Hall of Fame Coach Russ Milligan won the first of his five state high school softball titles at Center Grove. The Trojans beat Northview in the single class system state championship game in 1995, 10-3. CG had planned to honor the silver anniversary state championship team in April during a home softball game but it was put on hold due to the Covid-19 Pandemic.
Milligan began his illustrious CG coaching career in 1992, finishing as state runner-up in his rookie season. The freshmen on that second-place team worked hard to finish with a 33-1 record and as state champs in their senior season.
CG has won a state-best seven softball state titles. Milligan credits the players on his teams from 1992-1995 for laying the groundwork for the success of the Trojan softball program.
“Without those girls in the first years, accepting the fact that, by God, we’re going to do this and we’re going to do it right and passing that on to the younger kids,” he says.
“Being young and cocky, there wasn’t any doubt we were going to win that year,” says senior center fielder Jennifer (Garnett) Mahaffey. (Garnett) Mahaffey is married, has a 15-year old daughter and resides just south of Birmingham, Alabama. She works at the University of Alabama-Birmingham as a research administrator in the department of neurology the past 20 years.
She says Center Grove softball was more than just a sport.
“I learned so much more than how to lay out for a ball or how to read a pitch,” she says. “Softball teaches you discipline, loyalty and love for something bigger than yourself. I figured out what kind of person I wanted to be and what kind of mom I wanted to be to my daughter. My daughter plays softball and I give her the same advice before every game.”
Another senior on that team was first baseman, Erin (Gandolf) Johnson. She still resides in the Center Grove community with her husband and three children. Winning a state championship has resonated with her seventh grade son.
“My son just said to me a couple of weeks ago: ‘My number one goal is to win a state championship when I’m in high school with the football team. Mom did it 25 years ago on a softball team and she still talks about it to this day, so it must be pretty amazing.’ It caught me off guard and teared me up,” says (Gandolf) Johnson. “It really is one of the most prominent, amazing moments of my life. I told him the work to earn that title will be something you will treasure for the rest of your life.”
Sophomore second baseman Venus (Harmeyer) Thorne also lives locally with her husband and two young daughters.
“I always tell them (my daughters) about the bonds and the relationships you build,” says (Harmeyer) Thorne. “It’s a memory you can share together and never forget. Once you win a state championship it’s always fun to get back together with those people to remember that time.”
Volleyball 2000 State Champs
Another milestone in Center Grove High School Athletics is the 20th anniversary of the Trojans’ first and only girls volleyball state title in 2000. Top-ranked Center Grove knocked off three-time defending Class 4A state champion Muncie Central 17-19, 15-12, 16-14 to claim the title.
“We went in ranked number one, but it was our first time being there so we felt like an underdog,” says senior Jennifer (Gandolph) Hawk. “The whole match was amazing. In that last set, we were down 14-7, and they literally needed one point to win and we ended up winning 16-14. They never scored again. It was the most incredible series of points put together. It was the ultimate team effort. Everybody contributed in some way whether it was an ace, a kill, a block.”
(Gandolph) Hawk is now the head volleyball coach at Perry Meridian High School. She led CG with 22 kills in the state title game and recalled the moment the Trojans scored the ninth straight point to beat mighty Muncie Central.
“I remember going to down to my knees first and then I just laid back on the ground. I just really couldn’t believe we just did it in that way, being down 14-7,” she says. “Finally getting there and doing it was awesome. All of us seniors had worked really hard. After the match was over, we had an escort back to school to the old gym (West Gym) for a pep rally. The fans came back and we got to talk on the microphone about the night. What it meant. How it felt. It was really neat to see how many people followed us back home celebrating with us. It was an unreal experience.”
Deb McClurg coached the CG volleyball program from 1994-2012. McClurg says the seven seniors on the 2000 team were successful because they started playing volleyball together at a young age, were multi-sport athletes, bought into the program and liked each other.
“It was that special bond those kids had and a special group of kids,” McClurg says. “They’ve gone on to coach on the side. We’ve got doctors, we’ve got teachers, we have nurses. I’m sitting here smiling at how proud I am of who these women have become. They have families. I know they’re coaching their daughters in sports. It’s a really special group.”