As to where the Woodland senior will suit up collegiately, that decision came much easier — a good thing for Southern Union State Community College. Mills visited the Wadley, Ala., school along with current — and future — teammate Danielle Fricks, and the choice became clear.
“I really liked the campus and [Fricks] really liked it, and it just worked out,” said Mills, who was drawn to the community aspect of the school. “I really liked the coach [Brian Pittman]. He was really nice. … He really turned the team around. … He’s really working hard to turn the softball team into a really good team, and I liked that.
“The girls on the team, they said their team was closer than they’ve been in a long time. The girls got along very well.”
Mills’ travel ball coach also found herself impressed with Pittman, particularly his ability to place players in four-year programs following their stints at the junior college level. Also, former players Myra Russell, a Cass graduate, and Courtney Watts have had plenty of kind words for the Lady Bison program.
“Between the two of them, those two families said wonderful things about the program,” acknowledged Georgia Trouble coach Deb Sonnenberg.
Just as Southern Union came with its share of endorsements, Mills does as well, and they come from Sonnenberg — who has coached the utility player since before she entered high school.
“She came to me as a young lady that wanted to pitch,” Sonnenberg said of their meeting eight years ago. “She’s really come a long way since the first days I met the Mills family.”
The Georgia Trouble coach described Mills as a “sponge.”
“She wanted to learn as much as she possibly could,” Sonnenberg continued. “She’s such a perfectionist. She wants to do everything at the highest level, and that’s what really drew me to her.”
It also may be what pulled her away from the Lady Wildcats program, where she played for two years before dedicating herself to travel ball full-time as a junior and senior.
“Whenever I decided to play strictly travel ball, it was a tough decision because I really did like playing [high school softball] … but I felt like I would improve more in travel ball,” Mills admitted. “With travel ball, I was working out all the time, and it was taking a lot of time … I just decided that my travel ball coach could really help me get to college, and I just decided that was my best route.
“Whenever I was playing high school ball, I was getting playing time, but whenever I went to travel ball, I focused on my training. I put most of my time into that.”
The Georgia Trouble plays year-round, including showcases throughout the summer, and when it isn’t on the field, players hone their skills at a training facility.
“In the offseason, which is winter, … we work in a building that we have in Adairsville, and we work there all the time,” Mills added. “We work out a lot, so we don’t have an offseason — it’s more like a workout season.”
The added workload has allowed Mills to develop into a reliable performer for the Georgia Trouble.
“It doesn’t matter where you put her, you know you’re going to get a good job,” Sonnenberg said of Mills, who also plays second base and in the outfield. “She’s consistent, dependable, and she’s been leading off for us with our showcase team and our 18-and-under team.”
The 1996 Canadian Olympic Team member describes Mills as the sort of player who may not draw a lot of attention but can go out and deliver a 4-for-4 outing at the plate.
“There’s nothing there that’s flashy, but you know the job is done,” said Sonnenberg, who has coached at Delta State (Mississippi) University, Auburn University, Kennesaw State University and Mercer University.
Even with as far as she has come, Mills’ coach believes the JUCO route was the right one.
“We felt with Rachel she needed a little more time to mature as a player because she’s not always recognized as that superstar kid,” Sonnenberg said. “I think when she gets there, I think she’s got the hard work and the ethic you need to perform at a high level there. I think her teammates are going to be pleasantly surprised, and the coach is going to be happy.”
“They have lots of options with her, and [Pittman] really got three players with one scholarship,” she added. “The nice thing about Rachel is that she works hard and she brings the best out of kids. She’s going to make her teammates better just because she’s there.”
Mills, for one, is satisfied with the way things have unfolded and credits the woman she entrusted with her softball future long ago.
“I am glad how it has progressed, and I’m really that my coach Deb was there because she really helped me get to where I am today,” the teenager said. “She’s done everything for me. She used to play in the Olympics and she coached in college, so she’s been there and done that.
“I’m really excited about it. It’s going to be an experience.”
It will be an experience well-deserved for Mills, who called the thought of leaving high school “bittersweet” — “It means that I have to grow,” she said.
“Rachel is just a super kid all around. She’s a good student, a good softball player and a good person,” Sonnenberg said. “She’s a good kid, and she deserves everything she’s getting right now.”