Story and photo by Torri Futch
Bluffton University’s very own Tejauna “TJ” Mills earned the “HCAC Freshman of the Year” honors for the 2016-17 basketball season. Mills is an exercise science major and a physical therapy minor. She grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and graduated from Chaminade-Julienne Catholic High School. She began playing basketball at the age of four.
“I remember I was on the cheerleading team before I started playing basketball,” Mills said. “It was for a boys’ basketball game, but during the game I couldn’t cheer, I was so fascinated by the game itself. I think I fell in love with the game of basketball on that day.”
Her earliest memory of basketball was winning the national championship with her AAU team when she was eight years old. Mills expressed how much she learned about the game of basketball at such a young age.
“I started playing basketball at a very early age,” said Mills. “It was my first love. Aside from cheerleading, I don’t know what else I could possibly love other than playing basketball.” Mills uses basketball as a constructive outlet for numerous reasons, from playing just for fun, to competing every week with her teammates.
Mills’ biggest inspiration is her mother. Though Mills is an only child, her mom has always been her biggest support system and number one fan as well as critic. “I know she would do anything for me. She has always been a big part of my life and I cannot think of anyone else I would want in my corner supporting me,” stated Mills.
“My mom has only missed one game out of the entire time I have been playing basketball,” Mills said. “She has always been there for me cheering me on at every game and leading the charge in functions after my games too, whether or not we won or lost.”
Although Mills has achieved much during her basketball career, she has had to overcome a few obstacles through the years. In high school, she had to build up her confidence in herself as well as learn to develop her skills as an all-around player.
“My high school coach did not really use players based on skills,” said Mills. “If the player was a senior or a junior, they automatically played, whether or not they were good for the team.”
She resolved to work hard and prove to her coach she deserved to play.
“I know deep down my coach didn’t like me as a person, but he really had no choice but to respect me as a great player,” added Mills. “It didn’t discourage me as much as people would think. I just had to work a lot harder when I would receive negative feedback. It was hard, but I eventually learned to make it positive and gain from it.”
Her favorite saying is, “You can measure height but you can’t measure heart.” Mills has the quote tattooed on her arm as a permanent reminder that she has the heart to overcome a stature others might see as a liability.
“Because I am shorter than most basketball players I have to add something extra to my overall game,” Mills said. “Yes I am shorter than most, but don’t count me out because my heart is and always will be in the game.”
Before Mills decided to attend Bluffton University, she received offers from multiple colleges such as Defiance (Ohio) College, Wooster (Ohio) College, Earlham College, Richmond Indiana and Wilmington (Ohio) College.
“I chose Bluffton because it was a great opportunity,” said Mills. “When I stayed overnight and took a tour of the campus, I felt comfortable and it wasn’t far from home either.”
Mills applied to The University of Tennessee, in Knoxville and University of Kentucky, in Lexington to explore her options outside Ohio.
Mills was surprised to receive HCAC Freshman of The Year, even though the honor didn’t surprise her teammates.
“I think she definitely deserves it,” said senior Rachel Beining. “She always worked hard in practice and during the games. Although she is a freshman and still has much to learn, it does not deter from the fact that she has the makings of a solid leader and could very well be a big part of Bluffton’s future seasons.”
Mills learned of the honor after a teammate sent her a link to the article naming her freshman of the year.
“I had no idea until it was posted on Twitter,” she said. “I am truly honored and grateful for the recognition that this award has given me.”
Mills’ goals for the future include working on developing her leadership skills to her teammates, winning the HCAC tournament championship before she graduates from Bluffton, maintaining a “coachable” attitude and even earning the One-Thousand point award throughout her time at Bluffton.
In the off-season, Mills plans to keep developing her basic skills of the point guard position, and building her confidence on the court, as well as helping potential new teammates for the upcoming seasons.
“I still think I have a lot more to accomplish before I graduate.”