The Final Out
Russ Milligan Retires After 27 Years As CGHS Softball Coach
Photographer: Erin Feldmeyer
Milligan arrived at Center Grove High School in 1990 with aspirations of becoming the head football coach, having spent the previous four years coaching football and baseball at Frankfort High School. Football coaching duties ultimately went to someone with more experience, and Milligan eventually applied for the head softball coach position during the 1991-1992 academic year.
“I thought there wouldn’t be any differences between softball and baseball, and approached it like a baseball team,” Milligan, 54, remembers. “I quickly realized things like baserunning and outfield plays are completely different in softball versus baseball.”
He credits pitcher Stacia Stewart and catcher Nicole Johnson, both freshman Trojan players during his first year as coach, with helping him get acclimated to the sport.
“They were phenomenal players and taught me a lot of the game,” says Milligan, a Concord High School grad originally from Michigan.
Milligan got acclimated to the sport quickly, leading Center Grove to the state championship game during that first 1992 season – losing to Lake Central but finding his stride along the way.
What followed is an accomplished 27-year career that established Milligan as one of the most successful softball coaches in state history – we’re talking five state championships in 1995, 1998, 2003, 2009 and 2015 and a stunning overall record of 741-95.
Looking back, Milligan attributes his successes to sticking to fundamentals and expecting an unyielding work ethic from his players.
“In the early days it was about trusting my players – swallowing my ego and listening to them as far as what was right for softball,” he says, adding that his teams always finished their seasons with a .900 or better fielding average.
“The fundamentals always remained the same – catching, pitching, base running, hustle – all of those basic clichés that make a winner are things I insisted upon from day one,” he says. “I never felt like we were out-hustled or out-worked by any team in my career.”
Milligan says the decision to step down didn’t stem from any single factor but was rather a gut feeling that grew throughout the 2018 season.
“I truly felt like this year’s team was the best team I’ve ever coached – we were untouchable through 15 games and then we slowly derailed,” Milligan says. “We still finished 30-2, but I felt like those losses were due to my inability to reach them and turn them around. It made me think that maybe it’s just my time.”
Milligan will be replaced by Alyssa Coleman, who spent the past six years as head coach at Speedway High School and played collegiate softball at Butler. Center Grove Assistant Athletic Director Scott Knapp says while he’s excited to have Coleman on board, Milligan’s absence will certainly be felt on the field.
“When you have success early like Russ did, you stick with what works, and he always had that combination of staying consistent but never being satisfied,” Knapp says. “We’re sad to see him go.”
Milligan will continue his chemistry teaching duties at Center Grove and plans to devote much of his newfound free time to backpacking with his wife Alisha.
“We already have a spring break plan to hike the Hawaiian Islands,” he says. “Backpacking and climbing is my passion. I love the Rocky Mountains, and I realize there’s only a finite number of years to do that, so that was a factor in the decision also.”
In Milligan’s estimation, his success lies not in the number of games his teams won year after year but in the way he molded each group into a cohesive unit.
“I never claimed to teach any group of kids the game of softball, but what I always did was make each group a true team,” Milligan says.