FORTVILLE — Scratching and clawing her way towards the outside of the field in search of another goal, Cleo Mills inadvertently, with her feet tangled, tripped over an opposing defender.
Falling to the ground and using her head as a cushion, Mills suffered a concussion just five games into her varsity career.
Then a freshman, Mills would miss nearly four weeks in an attempt to reach 100 percent. All she needed to do was pass a baseline test — the norm after suffering a concussion. Although, that was easier said than done.
Competitive, driven and tenacious, according to Mt. Vernon head coach Steve Williams, Mills did so well on the first baseline test at the beginning of the season — all players take one so they can compare later if injured — she needed multiple attempts to pass it a second time. Zealous by nature, Mills can never take a play off.
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After missing eight games, Mills posted a hat trick in her first contest in a month. Hoosier Heritage Conference rival Delta didn’t have a chance. And she hasn’t stopped scoring since.
In a completely healthy sophomore campaign, Mills scored a county-best 27 goals, which ranked 10th in the state, and led the Marauders to an undefeated record (7-0) in HHC play. For her accomplishments, Mills has been named Daily Reporter Girls Soccer Player of the Year as voted upon by the coaches and sports staff.
“Somehow I did so well on the first baseline test I had trouble getting cleared,” Mills said modestly. “Having to take it a few times was so nerve-wracking. It doesn’t tell you how you did right after.”
A defender on her club team, FC Pride, Mills is aggressive, quick and fearless in pursuit of the ball — all qualities a coach would want in a stout defender. That skill set doesn’t hurt on offense, either, and both Williams and Mills believe they give her an advantage during the high school season.
Although physical, the sophomore speedster can and will play with finesse. Williams said one of her best qualities was scoring in one-one-one situations, separating away from the pack and scoring on a touch shot to beat the keeper, for example.
“She did that about every game,” Williams said. “She’s a breakaway threat. She’s the one that can really rustle her way up through a couple defenders. She has a real passion for scoring and the mentality of a defender.
“She also puts herself in the right spot at the right time. When she’s at full speed, she is really good with the ball. She has a combination of skills and smarts.”
Mills had little trouble with Franklin Community, as well, posting a hat trick and later topping that performance with a four-goal effort against Delta. She scored three postseason goals, including one in the sectional final against rival Greenfield-Central. After 13 goals her rookie season, Mills is sitting on 40 career scores.
It does help when you have one of the nation’s top passers. Mills has no problem acknowledging that.
Mt. Vernon and FC Pride teammate, junior Lexi Hardie, dished out 27 assists this season — many of which went to her long-time partner in crime — and finished the year with the fourth-most assists in the entire country.
The pair has been on the field together since they were 7 years old, according to Hardie, and have grown up playing a similar style. They’ve finely tuned that relationship, especially the last two summers, at the highest level possible.
FC Pride has made the U.S. Youth Soccer Nationals two years in a row with Mills and Hardie at its services. This past summer, they lost to the eventual National Champion Midwest United out of Michigan, by just one goal, Mills said.
“What makes the game easier for me is being able to already know what (Mills) is thinking or where she is going to be on the field,” Hardie said, who was also named first-team all-county. “Just knowing each other’s play (helps).”
Mills’ success on the field hasn’t gone unnoticed. She is beginning to receive interest from college coaches and recently took a visit to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Mills, who sports a 4.123 GPA, is also considering Anderson University. Although, she has plenty of time to decide and a few more goals to put in the back of the net.
Born into a family who loves basketball, baseball and football, Mills is the only soccer player in her family. She has three older siblings all in their 20s and a younger brother, Jude, who goes to Mt. Vernon Middle School. None of them, including her parents, Leslie and Dale, have ever played the sport. Jude currently runs cross country.
“Soccer was just a really good fit,” Mills said, who tried different sports as a kid. “It has been a really good stress relief, and I just leave it all on the field.”
Cleo Mills, Mt. Vernon
Stats: 27 goals; three assists
Awards: All-HHC and All-District
Club: FC Pride
Parents: Leslie and Dale Mills
Favorite Food: Pasta
Favorite Athlete: Carli Lloyd
Favorite Movie: Hunger Games Series