Michael Bullock (@thebullp_n)
(Ed. Note: This story is part of CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2016-17 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed so far can be found here.)
CARLISLE — Each time DeShawn “Dey Dey” Millington pops into Gene Evans Gymnasium — whether for practice or just to hoist up some shots or while taking a shortcut to the training room or maybe even the locker room — he’s reminded of Carlisle’s sparkling hoops history.
Such as the four consecutive PIAA Class AAAA championships the Thundering Herd collared from 1985-1988 with the likes of Billy Owens, Jeff Lebo and former Pro Bowl linebacker Lee Woodall in the lineup or the half-dozen District 3 titles that are safely stored away in a crowded trophy case or the list of former greats that are among the school’s all-time leading scorers.
Everything’s right there, in some shape or form, on that one unmistakable wall that causes visiting eyes to grow wide while locals grin and reminisce.
“It’s crazy. I just think about it every single day,” said Millington, Carlisle’s magical 6-1 senior catalyst. “Every time you walk in that gym, you look at the banners.
“You cannot look at the four state championships without thinking about having a state championship. Every time I walk in there, I want a state championship.”
Skip back eight months or so and many of the hoops-happy folks who live in the bustling Cumberland County community were thinking that maybe, just maybe, more state-wide attention was heading Carlisle’s way since the Herd was in the midst of the school’s deepest postseason run since 1988 — when Owens and Woodall were seniors.
While the Herd didn’t quite get there — a scoreless third quarter in a 59-42 loss to eventual finalist Allderdice in the PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinals proved mighty costly — they excited the community and elevated the expectations heading into the 2016-17 campaign since so many of the same players will be suiting up yet again.
In the middle of Carlisle’s green-and-gold spotlight will be the remarkably athletic Millington, the springy lead guard with the Iverson-like crossover who last season averaged 18.3 points per game and landed a third-team all-state nod from the panel of Pennsylvania sports writers that couldn't help but marvel at his creative game.
“That pushed me,” Millington admitted during a brief break during last month’s Shootout at Dickinson College’s Kline Center. “Once I made it to the all-state team, right after basketball season I was in the gym. It’s just motivation.
“To make all-state, not everybody can do that.”
Since Millington opted not to play football for the first time during the fall — he also skipped track season in the spring, despite winning a Class AAA triple jump title during his freshman year — all he’s been doing is playing basketball.
“It’s unreal. He sees gaps that no one else sees,” said sixth-year head coach Andre Anderson (73-54), who starred for the Herd before heading off to the University of Vermont. “As a coach, he’s a different type of kid to coach.
“A lot of coaches might oversee it and go like, ‘Damn, Coach Anderson lets him pound the ball.’ He puts us in situations to make us successful and you’ve got to have a different type of patience when you’re coaching a kid like DeShawn,” Anderson admitted, referring to Millington’s ability to improvise on the floor and in the air.
Millington has not been working by himself, however, as a number of veterans spent those months leading up to preseason practice in the gym and at different events.
“We’ve got guys. This is a solid squad for us in the preseason. We’ve got some guys that are gonna be contributing big time,” added Anderson, who appears on the sparkling list of Carlisle’s all-time leading scorers that hangs high on that prominent Evans Gymnasium wall. “Usually we’re waiting for five to eight kids that are big-time players for us, so just getting this head start is huge.”
Helps that everyone still is wound up following last season’s postseason run — a fifth-place finish in the District 3-AAAA playoffs was highlighted by a fabulous quarterfinal-round encounter with eventual champ Reading in overtime — and a 21-7 finish. The Herd also shared the Mid-Penn Commonwealth Division title with Harrisburg.
Yet it’s that loss to Allderdice that continues to sting, a sting that’s fueling Herd players and coaches as they prep for a demanding 2016-17 season flush with expectations.
“We don’t focus on outside perspectives too much,” Anderson added. “The guys that were in that locker room, the guys that played in that game, the coaches that coached that game, that was tough to see us not make a bucket in that third quarter. Those guys were upset after that game. They knew we could have played with what I felt was one of the top teams in the state and they ended up being one of the top two teams.
“There’s a sour taste left in our mouths about that for sure. We’ve got to have that mindset to get back there, so we can fix what we didn’t do the first time.”
Along with Millington — about to start for the fourth straight season, Millington has pocketed nearly 1,100 career points — 6-7 senior Ethan Houston (7.6 ppg) and 6-5 junior Ki Barnes (3.7 ppg) are returning to the Carlisle starting five.
Houston, who can float to the arc and bang on the blocks, just might be the Herd’s top perimeter threat.
While 6-3 senior Nate Barnes (3.6 ppg), 5-9 junior Gavyn Barnes (4.8 ppg) and 5-9 senior Ben Milligan (3.7 ppg) also were part of Carlisle’s rotation a season ago — all of the Barnes youngsters are cousins — two of those three likely will start.
Additional depth will come from 6-6 junior Joe Mastrangelo and 5-9 junior Nigel Newson, as well as several others that Anderson & Co. have been observing.
Replacing the likes of Jordan Purcell — Purcell is playing for Herb Magee at Philadelphia University — Tyler Greene, Paul Candland and Chuckie Nist is a priority. And some of the aforementioned youngsters will get the first crack to do that.
Plus, with the demanding schedule that Anderson has devilishly concocted to test his athletic group and prepare them for what they hope is a lengthy postseason, the Herd will need everybody and the Herd will need them every single night.
In addition to the rigorous Commonwealth slate — Harrisburg, Central Dauphin East and State College figure to field strong sides and no one concedes anything at home — the Herd has testy nonleague dates slated with either Hempfield or Mechanicsburg, La Salle College, Central York, Spring Grove and even Lower Merion.
Then, there’s a home date on Dec. 23 against Reading that certainly will test the Evans Gymnasium capacity, much like it was regularly tested in the 1980s. Hey, they managed to find room at the last minute when former Gov. Bob Casey and his security detail were part of a sellout crowd on hand to see a Bishop McDevitt squad that included his son, Matt, challenge Dave Lebo’s powerful Herd.
“Reading is definitely in my head,” Millington admitted.
“Reading on the 23rd [of December] at the crib, it’s not gonna be easy,” a grinning Anderson said. “I did that because we’ve got a good class that’s getting ready to depart. I knew we would have a ton of experience. Some of these teams, even though they have the big names, who knows if they have the experience we have?
“I know the confidence these kids have and the experience these kids have, it really makes a difference in building up to what we’ve been able to build up to,” Anderson added. “Why not go out and play these teams? Why not go out and give it a shot?”
Anderson also grew up in Carlisle, so he knows how the community responds to quality basketball teams. All of them know what those green banners on that prominent Evans Gymnasium wall stand for and how those sparkling memories materialized.
Many of them were there. Many of them will be back yet again.
“As for expectations, it’s gonna be higher for us as a team,” Anderson admitted. “We can’t be content making it to the final eight in the state tournament. We can’t be content or complacent with that. We’re gonna try to be even better. We’re gonna try to one-up it and get right back down to that place. I know we can.
“We still have some dominant kids on the team. Experience is the biggest thing. Some of those close ones, where you’re fighting tooth-and-nail to get a win, we know how to win those now. We didn’t know how to win them before. We started to learn how to win them last year and with a point guard like DeShawn and Ethan, who’s played major minutes, the kids that are surrounding them, they know their roles,” Anderson added.
“That makes you win games.”
Count Millington among those ready to get going. While repeated looks at those aforementioned banners stoke his competitive fires, so, too, do memories of last season’s state quarterfinal outing against an Allderdice squad that eventually played for a championship.
“That right there, sticks in my head,” Millington mentioned. “This can’t happen again, so it really just motivates us to push even further. Knowing that we got to like the [state quarterfinals], we feel like we can go further than that.”
Well, we’re about to find out if that's the case.