November 16, 2009

UVM's Milo a man for all seasons

UVM's Justin Milo has found a niche in two sports. (photo: Brian Jenkins)

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Vermont went to the Frozen Four last year, but ultimately came short of winning the program’s first national title. Still, one UVM player begins this season a champion.

Justin Milo, a third-year player out of Edina, Minn., spent his summer patrolling left field for the Staten Island Yankees of the Class A New York-Penn League, hitting .253 with a home run and 12 RBIs in 25 games. Staten Island – an affiliate of the New York Yankees – beat Mahoning Valley in a three-game series to win the league title in September.

“It really was an amazing thing. You don’t get a chance to win a major championship too often,” he said. “Every time I’ve been in a tournament with a ring on the line, I feel like I’ve come up short. I always wanted to get a nice big championship ring.”

Multi-sport stars are certainly no novelty in the college universe, but Milo is unique in that he went from a Frozen Four run with the Catamounts to a professional contract with the Yankees. He was able to keep his college eligibility for hockey because he went pro in a different sport.

And, it makes sense that Milo would end up doing something so different from the norm, since very little about his journey has been conventional.

Milo started skating when he was 2. He started playing baseball a few years later, and neither sport could wrest all of his attention away from the other. But instead of dabbling in baseball and hockey before picking one to play full-time, he ended up taking his talent all the way to the collegiate level in both.

After playing two seasons in the USHL and spending summers with the Eden Prairie (Minn.) American Legion team, he went to Cornell, where he scored three goals as a freshman on the ice. After that, he played his way into a spot on the freshman All-American baseball team and All-Ivy League team, hitting .426 with a team-high 10 doubles in 19 games.

It was made clear to Milo, however, that he wouldn’t be able to keep playing both sports for Cornell, so he decided to transfer.

“I decided to look at schools who had shown interest in me during my USHL days,” he said. “It was a real late-summer decision, I went on a recruiting trip to Vermont; they seemed pretty happy about having me come to their school, and playing both sports would work out just fine.”

Cornell’s loss was Vermont’s gain. Milo sat out the 2007-08 hockey season because of the transfer, but collected All-America East second team and All-New England honors in baseball that spring, tying for third in Division I with eight triples.

Everything seemed lined up for Milo to continue the dream of playing both sports -- until Vermont announced it would terminate its baseball program at the end of the 2009 season. But Milo managed to keep his baseball career moving forward by catching the Yankees’ eye with his play – on the ice.

“The only way I’d be able to continue my baseball career was to get drafted,” he said. “I didn’t want to transfer, because I’d probably have to leave hockey and go to another school for baseball. (Then) I got an e-mail from the Yankees’ vice president of scouting, Damon Oppenheimer, right after the Frozen Four. He saw me having a good game on television, and he said he was pumped watching me score.

“So, if it wasn’t for that Frozen Four run, I maybe never would have been drafted by the Yankees, or drafted at all. It’s pretty amazing.”

After scoring 12 goals and 14 assists for the Catamounts -- and potting the power-play goal in the national semifinal against BU that caught Oppenheimer’s eye -- Milo played in Vermont baseball’s final season. He was then drafted in the 37th round by the Yankees, spent a seven-game stint with their Gulf Coast League rookie team, and then flourished on Staten Island.

To be able to compete at such a high level in two sports requires a strong competitive edge, something first-year Staten Island manager Josh Paul saw from Milo over the summer.

“He was huge for us,” said Paul. “He wasn’t in a starting role, but he was great off the bench, and he really filled in when we had some injuries down the home stretch. The thing that stands out is that he’s such a good team guy; you didn’t hear him complain about playing time. It really was my pleasure to have him on my team.”

Juggling two sports with academics also attests to Milo’s time management skills.

“The organizational skills he has are tremendous,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon said. “To be an above-3.0 student and play baseball and hockey is truly remarkable. At the end of our season and school year he signs with the Yankees and plays baseball. … He didn’t have a lot of time to skate and he missed first few weeks of strength sessions (and) captains’ practices, but then stepped out there and looked like he didn’t miss a beat.”

This year, the Catamounts are in the process of reloading after going to the 2008 Hockey East final and then last year’s national semifinals. When a team is that close to the big prize, it’s often intangibles that make the difference – intangibles such as, say, a player who’s already learned what it takes to win a major championship.

“I’m sure it’s almost become redundant, but anyone who knows how to win championships says winning is contagious,” said sophomore goaltender Rob Madore. “You never know how important experience is until you have it, and having a guy who’s been through championships, and won championships at the pro level … can only lead to good things in our future.”

Milo may eventually have a decision to make about his dual passions, and which one becomes his profession. Come the spring, he may decide that it’s time to change his course once again and play a full 140-game minor league baseball season.

Until then, however, he can remain a man for all seasons.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.