It’s been a year of intense challenges and blessings for Head Softball Coach Roni (Arellano '01) Miller. She began working on a Master’s of Arts in Organizational and Global Leadership degree through York College Online in summer 2017 heading into her fourth season with York College Athletics. Later that year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Not a person who quits easily, Miller chose to continue with the graduate program while aggressively attacking the cancer. The result of that combination was the transformation of her approach to coaching--and life.

Coach Miller has a family history of breast cancer (her mother is a survivor, her grandmother was not as fortunate) so in some ways, she wasn’t surprised by the diagnosis. She moved very quickly from fear and frustration to “Ok, how do we beat this?”

Talking with her daughters Peyton (9) and Aubrey (6) for the first time about it was hard. Some people told her not to use ‘the C-word’ because it would frighten the girls. However, she didn’t want to risk them hearing it from someone else. So Miller told them plainly, “I have breast cancer, but it’s going to be okay.”

“They said, Mama, are you going to die? I told them no, not right now.”

Coach Miller’s husband, Kenny, a retired US Coast Guard officer and also one of her assistant coaches, was her rock through the experience. “I couldn’t have done this without him...I have read about how cancer can tear relationships apart, but Kenny has loved me more through this.”

Kenny was never far from her side, monitoring her recovery after surgeries and driving her to Lincoln for radiation treatments for six weeks. The trips required them to miss daily chapel--a great loss to Kenny who especially loves the singing. Instead, the Millers sang along to praise and worship CDs every day on the way to radiation.  

The spring semester was full as they traveled for treatments and games. When Miller wasn’t coaching, she was doing homework. “There were a lot of late nights getting assignments done, but the faculty were incredible,” she said, recalling all the messages of support she received. They encouraged her to turn in assignments as she could, but to take care of herself first.  

“There were two weeks that were really hard on me,” she said, but the faculty didn’t knock off points for late work. “My professors emailed me daily that they prayed for me and I believed them.” Miller completed her degree in May and graduated from York College a second time. 

She has no shortage of good things to say about the Organizational and Global Leadership program. A class on diversity introduced her to more effective communication methods that had a direct impact on her coaching style. A class on budgeting transformed her relationship with money and equipped her to better manage her team’s finances as well as her personal spending.

Simply put, her studies were life-changing. “You’re going to sort your life out in this program. It forced me to think about things I’d never thought about before. It forced me to reconsider my life...I am a better person because of this coursework. I am a better coach, a better mom, and a better wife.”

She implemented new strategies with her team immediately, such as doing personality assessments so players could celebrate strengths in their differences. They did team exercises in communication and listening and looked for new character building opportunities.

Though she’s always held her players to a high standard, this year was different. Players were called out for poor attitude and there was a new focus on character. “I was hard on them. I told them the truth and loved them more,” said Miller.

Coach Miller set the example for character by pitching in practice, even though it was painful and tore the skin off of her radiation site. “I played through it,” she said. Why not let someone else pitch during practice? “That was my job. And because I’m stubborn. I’m a coach. That’s what I signed on for. I’ll do whatever I have to do to make my players successful.”
Miller’s players became as protective of their coach as her husband was. Sometimes they intervened during practice (a thing Kenny knew better than to try) when they could tell she was hurting. “Coach, go sit down,” they’d tell her sternly and take the ball away.

Sometimes she even listened.

The team’s goals stopped being about number of runs scored and games won. Instead, they focused on taking care of each other. “They played so much better when they realized they had each others’ backs,” Coach Miller said. As a result, they doubled their conference wins and one of the players, Alysia Rodriguez (JR/Canyon Lake, Calif.) made first team all conference. Two others, Lia Hamamoto (FR/Long Beach, Calif.) and Mikayla Lawrence (JR/Lake Elsinore, Calif.) were named Honorable Mention All-KCAC for their efforts.

There were other blessings, too. “I liked coaching more,” said Miller. “The team liked each other more...I wasn’t coaching to win this year. I felt like I was coaching to save my life.”

The Millers were overwhelmed by the support of the York College family. Alumni she’d never met sent her checks. She recalls the sinking sensation the day she opened a bill from the hospital and was not sure how she was going to pay it. A few days later, she received a check from a well wisher for more than the amount. “When I would worry, I would think, ‘you need to stop and recognize that God is going to provide and is providing,’” she said.

“I’ve always talked about how incredible the York College family is, how we take care of each other, but I never needed it before myself. I’m happy to say that it really does work the way I had always said it did. I tell my players, we may not be Yale...but there’s no other school in the country that cares like we do.”

Other teams sent gifts and donations, from signed equipment, to personalized blankets, to beribboned boxes filled with cash. Miller received a gift from every softball team in the conference and heard from coaches across Nebraska and the country, from Fresno State to Purdue.

She gestured to the collection in her office. “It looks like Pepto Bismol exploded in here,” she laughed. “It was difficult to play some of these teams because I knew they were all rooting for me.”

Throughout this season, Coach Miller has rejoiced in her trials and developed new perseverance. “My faith has been made stronger through this. I saw my husband’s faith grow, too...I believe we’re all given battles to fight for a reason. I hope and pray that the battle I fought this year is seen by others and their faith grows stronger, too.”
Kenny and Roni have been overwhelmed by the amount of support they continue to receive. Roni's office in Middlebrook Hall is filled with gifts, cards, and special messages of hope from all across the country.