Amy Eckhoff left early Saturday morning, driving eight long hours and 398 distant miles to watch her first-ever mentor and “second mom” receive a distinct honor from the Santa Fe Independent School District, the official dedication of Anna Marie Milligan Gymnasium.
“It was very important for me to be here,” said Eckhoff. “The things I learned from her are things I felt were important to carry into my program (at Hawley High School). Not just the way to coach the sport, not just the sport, but the little things.
“She was definitely like a second mom to me,” Eckhoff added. “Coming so far away from where I grew up, a small town girl, she took me in her arms, and (husband) Robbie and I became a part of her family.”
Family, in fact, seemed to be the theme of the entire program, as one by one, fellow administrators and coaches, along with ex players shared fond memories of Milligan (known as Coach Mill), the Lady Indians’ volleyball coach for 40 years, from 1977 to 2017.
“It is indeed a moment to relish her impact on our community,” Dr. Leigh Wall, SFISD superintendent, told the crowd.
Rusty Norman, board of trustees president, officially dedicated the gymnasium in Milligan’s name. Then former player Kim Blankenship read a poem she wrote titled “More Than a Coach.”
“She loved all of us,” Blankenship said before reciting the following: “‘It’s more than just winning when you enter her gym ... she started off tough and softened with time ... 40 years ... each season unique.’”
Soon after, Patti Hanssard, assistant superintendent for human resources/public relations, said, “I’m honored to witness her name on the court,” quickly directing those on hand to view the unveiling of the dedication plaque in the hallway nearby.
The plaque reads: “Coach Mill forever impacted students and athletes at Santa Fe with her intense attitude and high expectations. Giving up or giving in were never options, only giving more was allowed.
“Loyalty to school and community were top priorities. Athletes were expected to give back to others. She evoked both fear and admiration in her students and athletes. She had a rough exterior but a soft heart that guided her to live compassionately.
“A good coach can change a game; a great coach can change a life. Thanks, Coach Mill, for being a great coach.”
Former players like Randie Paoli Martindale, who not only played for Milligan, but also coached alongside her and even watched Milligan coach her daughter, Lindsey, backed those sentiments.
“You can see that love for her from everyone here today,” said Martindale, accompanied with teammate Caren Hilliard Hertenberger. “I was fortunate to play for her, coach with her and still today be friends.”
Two of her more recent players, Haley Henderson (Class of ‘14) and Madison Ogden (Class of ‘15), recalled Milligan using unorthodox coaching methods to help develop quicker movement on the court.
“She duct taped ping pong balls to the bottom of our shoes,” Ogden said with a chuckle. “If we dented the balls, we had to run.”
“I got to see the tough side of her and the soft side of her,” Martindale said. “The other side was a whole different story. Her passion for the kids was totally genuine.
“She is a legend. She truly is.”
Current Santa Fe volleyball coach Jennifer Webb, who took over for Milligan this past season, agreed.
“Everything (Milligan) has done has definitely affected me in some way,” said Webb, a 1993 Santa Fe graduate and former Milligan protege, as well. “She always looked out for me and groomed me to take this job. Hers are really big shoes to fill. I just hope to keep her legacy alive.”
Milligan, meanwhile, was touched by the entire celebration, from beginning to end.
“How very, very honored I am to have this gym and facility named after me,” Milligan said. “Joe Raitano gave me a break, and I’m so thankful to not just the district, but the community, to have been able to spend my entire career here.
“It’s a huge accomplishment, one I shared today with my family, longtime friends and my kids, my players.”
Editor’s note: Read more about the ceremony in the online version of this article at galvnews.com.