The mountains of West Virginia just didn’t stack up beside Rocky Top for Science Hill senior Tyler Mills, who announced Thursday that he will swim in college at Tennessee.
Mills was one of six Hilltoppers to reveal college choices on Thursday. Check this weekend’s editions of the Johnson City Press for more on runner Molly Foster (Belmont), O’Ryen Scott (Carson-Newman football) and soccer players Louis Fagelson (Birmingham Southern), Johnny Bracewell (LMU) and Nick Boegemann (LMU).
Mills also visited West Virginia and would’ve gladly moved to Morgantown had it not been for a visit to Knoxville.
“It was basically a no-brainer,” Mills said. “I mean, West Virginia University was up there, but I don’t think they have the potential that UT has. … Everything was phenomenal — the coaching staff, the team, the facilities. And it’s a great conference for competition.”
Mills won the state title this year in the 50-yard freestyle. He’s also broken Science Hill great Kyle Owens’ records in the 100-yard freestyle and 100-yard butterfly.
But Mills speaks with reverence when asked about Owens, who swam at Auburn and nearly qualified for the Olympics. Owens was a senior when Mills was in eighth grade, and Mills said his sister Lauren, who swims for Pittsburgh, was pretty good friends with Owens.
“So I was around him a lot and got to talk to him and stuff,” Mills said. “I don’t like comparing myself to Kyle, because he’s so good, he’s so far out there. And he’s a great guy.
“I mean, it’s good to have someone like a predecessor to set standards to shoot for, but we’re different swimmers and swim different things. I respect him a lot.”
Mills’ coach, Chris Coraggio, also coached Owens, and he said Mills could conceivably have more upside at the same age simply because he began swimming later than Owens.
“Tyler still has a great deal of improvement in him,” Coraggio said. “He has only been swimming since middle school, while many collegiate swimmers have been at it for 8-10 years. This past season, he showed the focus and maturity necessary to take his game to the collegiate level.
“I believe Tyler knows that a lot of dedication and perseverance will be expected of him at Tennessee, but I think he has shown the ability to go after challenging goals and do the work necessary to achieve them.”
The potential of Mills and UT are similar, according to Coraggio.
“Tyler is going to a program that is on the rise,” Coraggio said. “Coach Matt Kredich has the Vols headed in the right direction. It will be exciting for Tyler to be a part of that building process.”
Mills is a seven-time all-state selection. He holds Northeast Tennessee Championships meet records in the 50-yard freestyle and the 100-yard butterfly. He was a USA Swimming Junior National meet qualifier and a USA Swimming Southern Zone All-Star.
Mills was quick to credit Coraggio for his development.
“He’s the whole reason I’m here,” Mills said. “I mean, just pushing me through those practices and making the sets and everything. So without him — there’s no way I could’ve done this on my own. … He’s hands down the best around here.”
Mills never dreamed he’d become an SEC swimmer when he started, but he never feared failure.
“I was not that good when I started; I’ll be honest,” Mills said. “But, you know, I never told myself I couldn’t do it. So I stuck with it and here I am.”