There is an unfamiliar sight on the sideline of the only undefeated boys high school basketball team left in the Wichita area.
Maize head coach Chris Grill had worked with Shelby Hillman around campus and hired her as his lead assistant and junior varsity coach.
Hillman said she hasn’t seen another woman coaching boys basketball. And she is taking advantage of her opportunity with a message.
“I feel like it’s a blessing,” she said. “I feel like it’s what I’m supposed to do, to serve. And this is a way for me to serve these boys. I mean, at the end of the day, basketball is basketball. Whether you’re male or female, coaching boys or girls, it’s just X’s and O’s.”
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Grill said Hillman’s spot on the coaching staff wasn’t a gimmick or a headline grab. She knows basketball, he said; she works hard and doesn’t hesitate when asked to do anything.
“I don’t need five of me out there,” Grill said. “I need a bunch of different personalities who can bring a bunch of different things to the game. She definitely does that for us.”
Maize is one of the top teams in Kansas. The Eagles are one of four undefeated boys teams left in the state. Maize is the only unbeaten in the highest classification, Class 5A.
The Eagles have five wins decided by five points or fewer against some of the state-title contenders in the Wichita area. They also boast arguably the best player in Kansas, senior Caleb Grill, who has signed to play at South Dakota State.
Caleb said he loves having Hillman on the sideline and at practices. Her knowledge of the game is obvious after only a few minutes around her.
“I’d rather have Ms. Hillman than most guys out there because she knows what she’s talking about,” he said. “She played college basketball. She’s been through the whole process that most people haven’t.”
Hillman said being part of such a prestigious, promising program has been an amazing opportunity.
“It’s got to start somewhere,” she said. “Giving people opportunties: That’s what it’s all about. Hopefully it starts something with other females out there.”
Hillman played her high school basketball at Cheney. She graduated and played at Barton Community College and eventually Fort Hays State. After her playing career, she started coaching girls basketball. She served as an assistant at Maize under girls coach Jerrod Handy until two seasons ago.
Maize reached the Class 5A state championship game that season after wins over De Soto and Salina Central in the first two rounds. The Eagles lost to now-three-time defending champion St. Thomas Aquinas 47-35 in the title game.
Hillman took a year off and said she never imagined herself returning to coaching on the boys side.
Few women have broken through the invisible barrier into male or male-dominant sports, but Becky Hammon, assistant for the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA, is among the most well-known coaches to do it. She was hired in 2014 as the second female coach in NBA history and is the only female coach in the nation’s four major sports leagues.
Chris Grill said Hammon and the Spurs never went through his mind when looking at hiring Hillman, but there was some hesitation of making the move.
He talked with Hillman, who had doubts of her own, and he talked with his players. He said to their credit, they had no problems with having her on the staff. Grill pointed out that people don’t typically question having a female track coach, male girls basketball coach or female math professor, either.
“As long as the coach is confident in what they’re selling to the players, it doesn’t really matter who it’s coming from,” Grill said. “You earn all the respect you need just from having that kind of confidence because kids will figure it out pretty quick if you don’t.”
Grill said even now he doesn’t see Hillman’s presence as a “big deal,” but he admitted it’s probably more of a conversation point than he realizes.
Hillman, meanwhile, likes that she is helping further the future of the Maize program on the junior varsity team. She also hopes to serve as a light for other women to make the leap — and for girls to not hold themselves back.
“It’s not about me,” Hillman said. “But if I can be that for a young girl, and she goes and chases her dream because of it, that’s what it’s all about.”
Hillman said she doesn’t know what her career path will look like in five years. She isn’t opposed to going back to the girls game but has proven she can contribute no matter where she is placed.
Grill said his goal in creating a coaching staff isn’t to hire a group of followers or hold anyone back. He wants his assistant coaches to move on to a higher position, if that is their ambition. He said he wants coaches with that drive to improve, and people who can only improve his program.
“When Coach Grill came to me, he said, ‘I don’t look at you as a girl,’“ Hillman said. “‘I look at you as a basketball coach.’“