Coach Dave Millilo was at a point in his coaching career where he was ready to hang it up. After coaching lacrosse for 23 years he said it felt like it was the right time to put down his clipboard. Then he received a phone call from Chagrin Falls. Outgoing girls lacrosse coach Chris Gellin was stepping down so the team needed a new face to steer the ship.
The former Shaker Heights girls lacrosse coach recalls that when he first received the offer it was a pretty exciting feeling. He had the chance to see what the lady Tigers were all about up close as he had scheduled Shaker Heights to play Chagrin Falls during each of his two years with the Raiders. Both contests saw the Tigers edge the Raiders by just one goal and coach Millilo came away impressed with what was happening on the opposite sideline.
“It’s pretty amazing. Ever since I’ve been here in the state I’ve always seen Chagrin Falls as that pinnacle and if you’re able to be a head coach of any of their teams then it’s a pretty big deal,” smiled the Tigers’ new head coach.
Coach Millilo was inheriting a talented group. Chagrin Falls was coming off its fifth consecutive Division II state title appearance where it had fallen short once again of a championship. He said that he sensed the team was tired of being runner-up and wanted to finally hoist the hardware. Coach Millilo described the Tigers as being determined to conquer the hurdle that was the state championship match thanks to the core group of seniors consisting of Anna Gellin, Mia Razavi and Katie Kwasny.
“Those three girls were so strong and had such strong will. They were captains as well and had really good management of the team I thought nothing was going to stop us,’ said coach Millilo.
Then the coronavirus pandemic struck. Coach Millilo had heard rumblings a few days prior to an intrasquad practice that a pause was on the horizon. He can still recall huddling the team together once it became official that the season was delayed. The then first-year Tigers’ coach remembers it as a terrible feeling when he had to break the news that this would be the team’s last practice for awhile. He said he wanted to keep hope alive by suggesting that there was a chance that things would resume in about a month’s time but acknowledged the possibility there wouldn’t be a season. His worst fears were realized when the OHSAA suspended the high school spring season about a month later.
“It was really hard. I think we all felt that we could go back to the state finals another year,” sighed junior midfielder Peyton Gellin. “We felt pretty confident in ourselves. We only got one scrimmage in.”
Fast-forward to about a year later and the Tigers are officially back. It is a completely new team as Gellin is the lone returning member from the 2019 team. Junior attacker Aubree Daughterty and senior goalkeeper Emma Livingston are the only other two players who had any playing time but bounced between varsity and junior varsity.
Despite the new faces coach Millilo is not feeling pessimistic about coaching a younger team. He has always had a habit of putting underclassmen on his varsity rosters throughout his career and believes that the younger players can be successfully developed playing at the highest level of high school lacrosse. Coach Millilo describes it as an encouraging feeling to coach some of the upstart Tigers as a number of them have experience playing club lacrosse during the summer so its already a pretty polished group.
Coach Millilo says that this season resembles that of a puzzle. All these new faces represent puzzle pieces and it’s up to him to figure out how they all fit together to make a winning combination. It’s a process that he doesn’t want to rush because if he can’t build the proper foundation then it will fall apart like a house of cards and the Tigers will have no chance of returning to the state title game.
The second-year coach has already identified some of his key pieces as Gellin will hold a pivotal role on the team not just due to her experience but also as someone he sees as one of the best players in Northeast Ohio. Gellin has already compiled several offers to play lacrosse at the college level.
Coach Millilo believes that Daugherty will be an essential piece on the offense and noted how much he loves her ability to score but also find the open player to set up for the attack. He is also very pleased with the way junior defender Jane Peck can change the way the opposition plays offense because of her reliability on defense.
He sees Chagrin Falls’ success depending on how far the trio of Gellin, Daugherty and Peck can lead the team. The Tigers will be tested as their schedule this year consists of playing top-tier Division I opponents such as New Albany, Upper Arlington and Worthington Kilbourne.
“You play a full season of lacrosse to prepare yourselves for the playoffs,” explained coach Millilo. “Everybody makes the playoffs so I wanted the team to be able to see as much unique advanced offensive sets and defensive sets as possible.”
Gellin, who has been named one of the team captains this year, understands that the team may be young but also knows how excited this year’s squad is to be back on the field. She describes herself as being very happy to take on a leadership role and help usher in a new wave of talent to continue a tradition of excellence. The Tigers will try to kick things off on a positive trend after their season opener against Hawken on Thursday evening in Chester.