Jeff Miller, then the owner of nearly 200 wins and the engineer of Charleston’s regional title, soul-crushing pressure defense and a team he drills to play clean but “not nice,” was frustrated by what he couldn’t do.
Effingham had vanquished Miller’s Trojans three times in 2017-18, the final one ending their season in the sectional championship. This bugaboo, not the school-record 25 wins and regional title, stuck with him into the offseason.
“You think?” Miller said, stating the obvious. “How do we beat these guys?”
At some point in their careers, successful coaches players mush push past a question, a beast that lingers in front. For Miller, the inability to beat Effingham in three tries that year pestered him. These two perennially successful programs had pushed each other over the years, but for one to win three times in a year? That was uncommon and particularly flustering.
One year later, he conquered the problem. Miller, after coaching Charleston to 29 straight wins, a second straight regional championship and Class 3A’s third-highest scoring offense, is the 37th JG-TC Girls Basketball Coach of the Year. He earned the distinction along with Tri-County's Joe Morrisey. Three of those 29 wins came against Effingham, returning the favor and those similar feelings to the Flaming Hearts.
“We knew Effingham was going to be our nemesis again this year,” Miller said. “We had to find something.”
That something was a 2-1-2 zone defense that was a perfect blend of pressure and fit with Charleston’s personnel. The Trojans held 12 opponents to 35 or fewer points, unleashing the merciless new weapon that confounded nearly everyone in its path and exceeded Miller’s highest expectations. He figured a new device would help, but not like this.
The story, though, is as much Miller’s willingness to seek the new strategy and how he found it as it is the 2-1-2’s effectiveness. The man who is now the winningest coach in Charleston girls basketball history decided he needed to learn something new 12 years into the job.
“Everything's a progression to build your program,” Miller said. “And we just kept adding to it.”
He knew exactly where to start.
Two years ago, in June 2017, Miller went to a team camp at Eastern Illinois led by the Panthers’ new women’s basketball coach, Matt Bollant. There, Bollant demonstrated the principles behind a defense he calls “buzz,” which he and an assistant developed while at Wisconsin-Green Bay. It’s a 2-1-2 zone designed to pressure and speed up offenses.
Miller left impressed. He watched EIU use it in Bollant’s first season and noticed the Panthers execute it with some pronounced energy and effort, even during a three-win season. Meanwhile, Miller and Bollant forged a relationship and frequently talked strategy and scheming.
“Every good coach wants to learn more. I love that about him,” Bollant said. “A lot of times coaches will get stuck in their ways and not want change. He was really open to anything I thought might help.”
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The 2017-18 season ended with a 63-54 loss to Effingham in the sectional finals, giving Charleston a 25-3 record with all of those losses to the Hearts. Miller moved into the offseason annoyed he solved all but one team. He called Bollant, curious for ideas.
“He loves to trap and speed the other team up, and I thought the buzz would be great for that,” Bollant said.
Miller knew he had the personnel to run it. Regan Bollant’s (Matt’s daughter) and Elizabeth Buescher’s length would help force deflections in the traps. Bernie Jackson was strong enough to guard the middle. And Shae Littleford could play up front and apply pressure.
“You fit your stuff to what your talent dictates,” Miller said. “You’re never too old to try something new. I’m not stuck in one way. I’m not stuck just doing one thing. If I think it’s going to work, I’m going to try it.”
The IHSA allows basketball 25 “contact days” in June, where schools can schedule scrimmages against others or hold practices. Miller used them to install the 2-1-2 and observe it in a game situation. Charleston scheduled Morton, the eventual Class 3A state champions, for one mid-June game, and largely used the 2-1-2, which Miller calls “blitz.”
It surprised Morton and Miller. Charleston lost by 4 points after missing a potential game-winning 3-pointer, but Miller saw everything needed.
“I actually called coach Bollant after that and said, 'you can't believe this blitz defense,’” Miller said. “I mean, it made them look silly.”
Right there, Miller embraced it. This was the curveball to throw Effingham. He spent the rest of summer practicing it. By fall, it was ingrained. Miller, though, saved it for games where he wanted to surprise tough opponents. In Charleston’s fourth game, the 2-1-2 held Paris to 44 points.
Then came the first meeting with Effingham, the barometer for just how successful this defense might be. Charleston won 51-44. The Trojans beat Effingham again in a holiday tournament, 45-43. Effingham, normally a patient half-court offense that dissects defenses and finds clean shots, could not solve it.
The holiday tournament concluded with a 56-42 win against Teutopolis. It gave Charleston four wins over opponents who went on to win at least 25 games. In all four, the Trojans allowed 45 or fewer points. This game, Miller says, is when his high-level program became the seek-and-destroy machine with no ceiling.
“Then it started sticking in the back of my mind a little bit, like, gosh, we have a chance to maybe run it all,” Miller said.
The Trojans defeated Effingham a third time on Feb. 4, this one on the road and again allowing just 46 points, clinching the Apollo Conference title in the process. In three meetings with Charleston this season, Effingham failed to crack 50 points. This wasn’t just avenging losses. It was intimidating and swarming a former demon with a shiny new tool he found by deciding everything he knew, everything he had accomplished wasn’t quite going to do the job.
“A lot of coaches don’t want change, especially when they’ve been successful,” Bollant said. “But he knew he needed something against Effingham. He was open to whatever might help.”