A year like no other ends with Millwood boys, girls at state basketball
Walk into the field house at Millwood High School any afternoon in early March, a time when most basketball teams have already checked in their gear, and you’ll likely find someone.
This week, it’s the boys.
But exit through the lobby, past packed trophy cases, across the parking lot and into the old gym everyone calls “The Hot Box,” and you’re also likely to find a team getting ready for state.
This week, it’s the girls.
Having both teams headed to state isn’t anything new at this tradition-rich school on the northeast side of Oklahoma City. This marks the 16th time in 31 years. And yet, this year is like no other — the boys are led by a coach who succeeded a legend, the girls by a legend who returned to coach.
During this final weekend of high school basketball in our state, storylines will abound. But entering the tournament, there is nothing quite like Millwood, which will try to win a pair of Class 3A titles starting Thursday.
“I feel like the tradition is coming back,” said senior Sabrian Murray, one of the captains on the girls team. “Over the past few years, the boys and the girls haven’t really made it … as far as expected.
“I feel like it’s coming back.”
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But in the weeks leading up to the season, no one could’ve imagined it would happen this way.
Ironically, the boys ended up with the least amount of upheaval — and they were playing without Varryl Franklin, who retired in 2018 after leading boys basketball for 40 years and winning 13 state titles.
Three seasons ago, Millwood hired Michael Jeffries as head-coach-in-waiting. District leaders wanted to give someone a chance to learn from Franklin.
The legendary coach, though, went a step further and empowered Jeffries.
“He let me have the reins,” Jeffries said. “Once I jumped in, I jumped in, and he allowed it.”
Jeffries implemented not only his scheme and style but also his structure. Papers hang on his office bulletin board at right angles. Practices move from one thing to another on a set schedule.
Adapting to a new style and a new coach could have been difficult this season.
Instead, Millwood excelled from the jump, winning 15 of its first 16 games. It enters the state tournament 22-3, and all three losses were to schools from bigger classifications.
Jeffries credits his players. They are veteran. They are talented.
They also bought in.
“They understand how I do things,” Jeffries said. “That’s the difference with this crew — they know where I’m coming from.”
That wasn’t necessarily the case with the girls team.
In September, Millwood found itself without a coach. With school already underway, candidates were scarce. Athletic Director Shannon Hayes and Superintendent Cecilia Robinson-Woods finally hit on an idea — bring back legendary coach Arnelia Spears.
Spears coached the girls for 40 years, taking over a program in disarray in 1974 and turning it into a powerhouse with three state titles and nearly 800 wins.
She retired in 2014.
“She’s never left the school,” Robinson-Woods said, adding that Spears continued coaching middle school softball. “She was always around. She was the same Coach Spears.”
But Spears had reservations about coaching high school basketball again, even if only for one season.
“I’m not worried about my health,” Robinson-Woods remembers Spears, who is 70, saying. “I’m worried about whether these kids are going to listen to me.”
Standing near midcourt inside “The Hot Box” earlier this week, Spears was as blunt as ever talking about her team.
“The talent is definitely here,” she said, “but sometimes, you can have talent … and feel that you’re entitled. You’re entitled to play because you’re this.”
“My thing is, I don’t care who plays.”
Spears starts two juniors and three sophomores, but she said she’d move middle schoolers to varsity if it was allowed and she thought they could help.
Even though she now has an adopted dog, Bella, who sometimes appears on the sidelines, it's not a sign Spears has softened. She still believes going hard, never quitting and playing for more than yourself is paramount.
The girls admit getting used to Spears’ high standards hasn’t been easy.
“She talks to us in a way that I’ve never been talked to,” point guard Alysia Pickett said, “but at the same time, I learned so much.”
When Millwood knocked off No. 3 Jones to get to state, the players showed their appreciation by beelining for Spears. They hugged her. They thanked her. They even told her that all the running she made them do paid off.
The lovefest shocked Spears.
“I’ve been real mean to them,” she said.
But these players have made Spears proud.
Truth is, both basketball teams have made folks in the Millwood community proud. There was change. There was upheaval. But they made it to state anyway.
Just like they so often have.
But like they never have before.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.