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Local Sports

Mills talks Cardinal girls’ basketball

(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part story on former Newton High girls’ basketball head coach Randy Mills.)

Randy Mills was back on the Newton High School girls’ basketball bench during the 2019-20 season. The former Cardinals girls’ head coach (1989-97) was on the coaching staff of first-year head coach Eric Vander Velden.

“I always like to talk basketball,” Mills said. “I’m enjoying being back involved with the Newton program. I had a good time this year with the kids, Eric and the other coaches.”

Mills is the only coach to guide the Newton girls to state basketball tournament action — in 1991 to the Iowa 6-of-6 tournament and in 1994 to the 5-of-5 tournament. He ushered the Cardinal girls’ basketball program from 6-on-6 to 5-on-5.

Mills also was a member of the Newton High boys’ 1964 state basketball team. The team went 23-3 under head coach Lewis “Buzz” Levick.

Newton claimed its second consecutive state basketball championship with a 44-39 victory over Cedar Rapids Jefferson. The Cardinal boys had the final back-to-back — 1963 and 1964 — single-class basketball champions in tournament history. Iowa went to a multi-class structure in 1967.

“Even though I’m retired I still substitute teach and work with the student council. I know a lot of the kids so I thought Newton could be better than what they showed,” Mills said. “When the opening came up for the girls’ head coaching job I thought about applying for it.”

The 1964 Newton High graduate and retired NHS social studies teacher and coach thought about it some more. He said he and his wife, Elaine, enjoy visiting their children and grandchildren near Chicago.

“I talked to Mr. (Ryan) Rump and told him I wanted to help out in some way. When Eric wound up getting the job, he was receptive of wanting my help and experience. Things fell into place and I joined his coaching staff.”

Mills is a Central College graduate as is his wife. His first teaching and coaching job was at Durant. He became a girls’ basketball coach — learning a new style of play 6-on-6.

“When I got the job at Durant, I had no idea I would ever be coaching girls’ sports let alone basketball. I had watched the girls’ state tournament on TV but had no experience with 6-on-6,” Mills said.

Mills said the first year at Durant he had no assistant coach and handled coaching duties for both varsity and junior varsity. He said he took things he knew from playing basketball, which was 5-on-5, and broke it down into what would work for the girls’ game.

“It was learn as you go. Defensively, I taught man-to-man defense and offensively, I took some offenses I was familiar with and adapted it to make them work for 6-on-6,” he said.

In Durant, Mills said the second and third years he had some really good kids. The team won 16 games in a row but didn’t qualify for the state tournament.

After eight years at Durant, Mills moved to teach and coach at Ackley-Geneva. In the 12 years coaching there, he guided Ackley-Geneva to four state tournament appearances — 1979, 1983-84-85 — along with several other regional final games.

“I was looking and found the Newton girls’ basketball coaching job open. It was in my hometown and I still knew Stan Kirchhoff. I talked to Stan and applied.”

Kirchhoff had coached the Cardinal girls’ basketball program during the early 6-on-6 days, Mills said, and had good teams. In Iowa there was just one class of 6-on-6 girls’ basketball with all sizes of schools played in the same state tournament.

“I inherited a good group of kids that first year here in Newton. We really had a successful season, making it to the regional final and losing to Ankeny,” Mills said.

“We graduated good players but still had a good core group returning for the 1990-91 season. During that year, the CIML decided it was going to the 5-on-5 girls’ basketball. It turned out to be the last year of 6-on-6 basketball for Newton.”

With Mills and assistant coach Lowell Zimmerman guiding the Cardinals, they made their final season of 6-on-6 basketball memorable. The Cardinals claimed the first and only trip to the 6-on-6 state tournament with a regional championship.

“There were some of us coaches who really wanted to stay with 6-on-6. We felt it was a good style for the girls and a lot of people got to play in the game,” Mills said.

Iowa girls basketball was played in a 6-on-6 format until 1994, when all school districts switched to 5-on-5. The girls also made the move to a multi-classification format.

After two years at Newton, Mills had to usher in the 5-on-5 era for the Cardinal girls’ program. He remembers those years in the second part on Friday.

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