Leading the Vikings ship
By Jake Keator
The Daily Reflector
Wednesday, June 5, 2019
D.H. Conley head baseball coach Jason Mills has long been a familiar sight along base paths in Greenville, whether it be at Hollywood Crossroads or another ball park in eastern North Carolina.
Mills took over the Vikings team in 1999 after leading the West Craven baseball team since 1993.
“Conley had always been a great baseball program under Allen Wilson. He did a great job,” Mills said. “He decided to resign, and it was about the first of August. I was still at West Craven with Peanut Langston, and I saw they had a science (teaching) opening and that was it. I probably by far wasn’t even close to the most qualified for that position.”
In the early 2000s, the Vikings’ top rival, J.H. Rose, was the dominant force not only Pitt County but in the state. Mills inherited a Conley team looking to climb the ladder and compete with the Rampants.
“Those first years were tough,” Mills said. “Rose was going through about four state titles in a five- or six-year span. They were really good. It was tough on us, but we started to break through a little bit. It wasn’t until about 2004 or 2005, with Aubrey Eason and Alex White, that we broke through. That group kind of set our program on the right direction.”
In 2005, Mills’ DHC squad won its first state title under his leadership.
“It came from not making the playoffs the previous year and winning our conference tournament,” Mills said. “We went through and won the state championship that way when Rose was a two-time defending champion. They were really good. We won that and then dropped down to 3-A and won that the next year.”
Upon his arrival, Mills joined one of the top rivalries in the state between DHC and Rose, having to face off against legendary coach Ronald Vincent.
“We had scrimmaged against Rose when I was at West Craven a couple times,” Mills said. “(Vincent’s) programs have always been the benchmark for the state. When I first got here, I never said I wanted to be better than him. Maybe one day I’ll be close, but I’ll never surpass coach Vincent. That’s the great thing about this rivalry, there’s never any ill will from either side. I always respected coach Vincent, and we’re all friends and love to play against one another. That’s what makes the rivalry so fun.”
Since the ‘05 title, Conley has reached five East Regional finals, made three straight state title appearances and won two titles. This season’s team also reached the East finals but fell to defending state champion New Hanover following a 2-1, walk-off loss in eight innings on May 18.
This year’s team had talent, including Cam Jackson, Robbie O’Neal, Jake Lysaght, Matthew Matthijs and Shea Ward. After all this season’s team accomplished, Mills still claims one team in particular is the best he’s ever coached.
“The ‘05 team probably was the best, most talented team I’ve had,” Mills said. “When Alex White misses almost two months of season and we don’t miss a beat all year. Aubrey Eason and Tanner Jones were amazing, Mike Taylor, who’s one of my coaches now, was amazing as well.”
Mills has coached some of the most familiar names to have come through Greenville, including Davis Kirkpatrick, Spencer Brickhouse, Bryant Packard and Phillip Sanderson among many others. Seeing his former players succeed at the next level is what Mills is most proud of.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Mills said. “To see them finally make that decision that they’re finally going on to further education, and using baseball to get there, it makes me really happy. We’re fortunate to have some really talented kids who love baseball, and it makes our jobs so much easier.”
The Vikings graduate 13 seniors, leaving returning players like Skyler Cross, Noah Link, Jack Carlyle and Matthijs to step into the spotlight.
“We’re going to be centered around our pitching for the next couple years,” Mills said. “Matthew Matthijs, Eason Warren and Evan McLean are going to be three names you hear a lot of from us. Position-wise, other than Noah, Jack and Skyler, we’re unsure of who’s going to be where next year. We’re going to go into the fall camp and kind of see where we’re at. We’re probably going to go with some of the older guys, Hutch Manning, Panda Askew, Charlie Dees, some of the guys who are going to be seniors.”
Mills added that he expects next year’s squad to be similar to Rose’s team this past season, one that enters the season unsure of who will take control but eventually sees younger players break through and play a major role in the team’s season.
When all is said and done, Mills hopes to be remembered not by his wins and losses, but the personal connections he’s made.
“I hope the community looks at me more so for the relationships I’ve created with these kids,” he said. “It’s more about that than it is about wins and losses, and that’s something I don’t think I would have said when I was younger. I’ve learned that over time from guys like RV and my mentor, Peanut Langston, who taught me more about the game than anybody else. It’s about the relationships with these kids and not about wins and losses. Those are extra. I see how the Rose kids look at Ronald Vincent with such admiration and love. That’s something I’d love to have. I’ll never reach him, but I plan on coaching baseball until they tell me I can’t do it anymore.”
Contact Jake Keator at firstname.lastname@example.org, 252-329-9594 and follow @JakeKeatorDR on Twitter.