Elizabeth Mills is used to long drives.
She was born and raised in Kent, a small town at the southern end of rural Sherman County, where it was common to travel an hour to the grocery store or 30 minutes to the closest gas station.
So when Mills and her husband, Todd, were looking at transferring their two daughters to Central Christian School, the 90-minute commute from Kent south to Redmond was not an issue.
“That’s really never been a concern,” Mills says. “It’s an easy commute. It really is. During the winter, if it’s icy out, we don’t leave home until it’s light out and the ladies in the (school’s) front office know that so they’re not worried about us.”
The Millses decided to pull their daughters out of the Sherman County school system two years ago.
“There were needs that were not being met,” Elizabeth says. “The Christian school fit perfectly into what our girls were missing.”
They researched two schools — Central Christian in Redmond and Horizon Christian in Hood River. While both are about 90 minutes from Kent, Elizabeth has two sisters living in Redmond and another in Prineville.
“I didn’t have any family in Hood River, where I could hang out (while the girls were in school), so obviously Redmond was the choice,” Elizabeth says.
The two Mills girls, Issy and Rilea, both volleyball and basketball players, enrolled at Central Christian in March 2017, Issy to finish seventh grade, Rilea eighth.
The following school year, Elizabeth accepted a position as an assistant coach for Central Christian’s middle school volleyball team. After a year in that role, she was named the girls high school basketball coach. Mills, 48 and a graduate of Sherman County High in Moro, played basketball in high school and then at Linn-Benton Community College in Albany.
She got into coaching while living in The Dalles, serving as an assistant with the varsity girls basketball program at the former Wahtonka High School. After six seasons as an assistant at Wahtonka and one season as the head coach, Mills moved from The Dalles back to Kent to live in the same home in which she grew up.
While her family’s farm went bankrupt in the 1980s, Mills still has two horses, a garden, cats, dogs and ducks on about 21⁄2 acres of land in Kent.
“I wanted to raise my girls out there, country living, getting your hands dirty, working hard for what you want,” Mills explains. “It’s quiet. You don’t have to deal with people.”
Todd Mills is employed as a journeyman lineman, working on power lines all over the Pacific Northwest.
“I definitely need my husband’s support to do it,” Mills says of coaching. “He’s the one that suggested it. He’s not home a lot. When he is home, he likes for us to be home, too, so being a coach isn’t conducive to that.”
But even with Todd’s schedule and the lengthy commute, Elizabeth said he has been able to see the girls play basketball.
With Central Christian’s school day starting at 7:45 a.m., Elizabeth wakes up at 4:30, followed by her daughters at 5 so they can be on the road by 6 a.m.
“Todd wanted me on the road with a new car that was dependable,” Elizabeth says, referring to the family’s blue 2017 Ford Fusion.
The girls take turns sitting in the front passenger seat. Issy, now a sophomore, has odd-numbered days, while Rilea, a freshman, gets even-numbered days. Whoever sits up front controls the music. Issy prefers hip-hop and pop. Rilea would rather listen to Christian music.
After dropping off the girls at school, Elizabeth typically hangs out at one of her sisters’ homes in Redmond until basketball practice starts at 3:30 p.m. Over the weekend, she prepares dinners for the week at home in a crockpot. After practice, the family typically will stop by the sister’s house to reheat dinner to eat on the way home to Kent. Mills says one of their favorites is pork and beans. The girls usually spend the commute back home doing homework.
Mills says she knew exactly what kind of basketball program she was taking over.
From the grandstands, as a mom, she watched Issy play last season when the Tigers finished 2-18, which was their best season since going 5-10 in 2013-14.
“I knew I could help,” Mills reflects. “You start with fundamentals. You make sure it’s fun.”
Central Christian, whose eight-player roster this season includes six freshmen, opened the season with 13 consecutive losses before defeating Prospect Charter 35-33 in overtime on Jan. 19 for its only win so far.
“I knew going in that we weren’t going to have a lot of wins, so we’ve got to be successful even if we’re not getting the wins,” Mills says. “We are successful when we are achieving our goals. We are making achievable goals and the girls are doing great. We knew it would be a building season and we walked on the court knowing that.”
Even as the losses have piled up, Mills says, the team has remained positive. She says when she recently pointed out to the Tigers that there were only three weeks remaining in the season, they were all disappointed, not wanting it to be over.
“I know I’m doing a good job if they want to keep at it,” says Mills, who wishes she had more time to work with the team.
“They are almost to that varsity level now,” Mills says. “I think if we had like six more weeks, maybe we could turn that corner. They have improved so much, more than I ever imagined that they could. Goals change next year. We are working on winning. The ultimate goal would be state championship, but we’ve got to take steps to get there. We’re looking to win some games next year.”
After defeating Prospect Charter in a Saturday afternoon game in Prospect, which is most of the way to Medford from Central Oregon, the Millses drove four hours, getting home to Kent at around 11 p.m. so Issy and Rilea could be at church the following morning to help in the children’s nursery.
Despite all the early mornings, late travel and losses on the basketball court, Issy, who scored the game-winning basket on a putback with two seconds remaining to defeat Prospect Charter, is happy at Central Christian.
“I’d rather be in my bed sleeping, but it’s fun and it’s definitely worth it to go to school here,” she says. “Everyone is close and the teachers are connected in with students. They pay attention to us.”
“It’s a good environment and more comfortable than public school,” she says.
— Reporter: 541-383-0307, firstname.lastname@example.org