There is a new leader of the powerhouse Millennium Tigers girls basketball team. Kevin Thomas was hired in April to coach one of Arizona’s premiere high school basketball programs, after Courtland Rojeck retired following 11 successful seasons.
The past two years have been especially dominant, as the Tigers won back-to-back 5A basketball championships, including a dominating 59-30 victory over Sunrise Mountain in the March championship game.
Thomas has been a social studies teacher at Millennium for three years. He knows the team and school well. His goal is to make sure the girls still “feel at home,” even as he adds some of his own coaching style to the team.
“The biggest thing that I wanted to portray to them is that I’m coming in trying to build off of what has already been established. I’m not coming in trying to flip everything on its head and blowing everything up. It’s going to be different. I’m not coach Rojeck, but I wanted them to know there’s continuity. You’re not walking into a foreign territory here,” Thomas said.
In fact, more than just a familiarity with Millennium basketball, Thomas and Rojeck were friends in their shared time together. The two would have marathon conversations in their offices about basketball strategy and philosophy, and Thomas even attended games periodically. Thomas had coaching experience and wanted to get back into the profession. But he was pursuing a master’s degree and did not have the time to dedicate to coaching.
When he finished his degree program, he was planning on asking Rojeck if he could volunteer his services somewhere on the coaching staff. But Rojeck retired from Millennium and moved out of Arizona at the same time, leaving a vacancy for which Thomas applied and eventually was hired.
“I wanted to work with Cory, but when he left, I just wanted to try and fill that role,” Thomas said.
He steps into a team that has high expectations. After consecutive championships, the girls are working toward winning a third.
The Tigers graduated a handful of seniors from last year’s team that were integral in reaching this point, though. So, just like the coach, there will be new players leading Millennium in 2021. It is a young squad for the most part. But the end goal has not changed.
“It’s to win another one right now. Once you win one you kind of automatically get that fight to go want to win another one. So, working together in practice so that we can win with the new coach,” said senior Kassidy Dixon, who committed to playing Division 1 college basketball at Grand Canyon University following this season.
“We’ve lost a lot of great people, but there’s a ton of talent in the program still. So, it would be awesome for us to reload and still have a breakout season,” added senior Reese Grimsley, who committed to playing at Oklahoma City University.
Because of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, the Tigers and Thomas were unable to hold a traditional offseason practice schedule in the spring and summer. Thomas knew a few girls from class but was relegated to online meetings with the returning players and staff.
It has taken a while for the team to fully mesh in preparation for gameplay. It is still getting there.
Thomas is relying heavily on his assistants, some of whom have been around the program for years. And, with the delay in the AIA season, there is more time to get conditioned for competition.
“Since we’re having this long preseason, it’s been great to have these practices where we’re learning the different sets and principles and just kind of putting everything together,” Grimsley said.
The Tigers open the 2021 season with a home game against Cactus Shadows Thursday, Jan. 21. This year’s campaign will be condensed to six or seven weeks following the COVID-19 delay to the AIA schedule. Thomas said he is ready to get started.
“I told everyone how spoiled I am as a head coach, from practices starting at 6 a.m. in the preseason and never having an attendance or buy-in issue and all the help the other coaches have given me. I’m really excited,” he said.