John H. Lilly’s Independence program powered its way into the title conversation by building from the ground up.
After his first two seasons in Coal City laid the foundation, year three yielded results as the Patriots returned to the postseason for the first time since 2016. Year four was the most successful in school history as, buoyed by seven first-team all-staters and the eventual Kennedy and Warner Award winner, Indy earned a spot in the Class AA state championship game last year.
While the run was historic, it ultimately came up short in a 21-12 loss to Fairmont Senior in the title game.
Not content on settling, the Patriots have stayed busy this summer with some of their top players traveling to seek more competition. Team camps at Glenville State, WVU, Virginia Tech and Charleston highlighted the three week period with several other players participating in other camps on their own time.
“We wanted to try and go against some people we don’t normally go against in the regular season,” Lilly said. “We want to expose our kids to players from out of state and down south and that sort of thing. We feel like if we do that consistently then when we play local talent, we feel comfortable with that.”
In all, the summer was a reflection of Lilly and Co. maximizing all of their practice time to improve the team and their prospects of returning to Wheeling and bringing home a trophy. Mapped out perfectly, the Patriots were able to fit nearly two months of football activities in before the season starts, making sure they’re in top shape and ahead of the curve once camp opens in August.
“We used flex days and had a literal June ball,” Lilly said. “We had three weeks there, then a week off and went with the summer three-week program. We went, in six weeks I don’t think we could’ve went any harder than what we did. We did seven camps, two 7-on-7s and a co-practice with Chapmanville. I don’t think we could’ve gone any harder than what we did and the kids responded really well. We had about 95 to 100 percent attendance and had no issues. Once again we wanted to try and go to the camps to make them go against guys that are better than them to make them improve because if you keep going against guys you know you can beat, you don’t make any improvement. But if you go against this guy from Texas or Alabama or Virginia, it makes you better and that was the plan for us.”
If any of the offseason intensity has been fueled by last year’s success, Lilly isn’t as aware of it. It served to show the Patriots how and where they needed to improve but his team isn’t living off the success of last season, expecting it to somehow suit up and contribute. It’s a point Lilly made sure they understood early in the offseason and they’ve seemingly taken it to heart.
If anything they’ve pushed themselves to improve and become the best versions on themselves.
“We really haven’t talked about it,” Lilly said. “We kind of have a motto, we want to surround ourselves with the best coaches we can and we’re going to continue to do that and overall take the approach to worry about us. We don’t even speak about playing somebody else. We consistently think about what can we do to make ourselves better? We focused in on that. Naturally we had a great year last year and it was a great year for our community, our school and our team and it was an unbelievable experience. But it was last year.
“This group’s not going to hang a banner on what they did last year. They’ve got to achieve it on the field and that was the talk we had in June – understanding that nobody cares what you did last year. In fact in might be the opposite where they come after you a little bit harder. We’re just going to focus on us and not worry about any of that.”