Wheeling – After covering a Beckley basketball game in the late winter of 2020, I made my way into the locker room at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center where boys head coach Ron Kidd was sitting. After we finished our postgame interview, the subject turned to football and without hesitation, Kidd, unprompted said these exact words to me.
“Just you watch. Coach Lilly’s going to build a program there that competes for championships.”
Kidd had a unique perspective. He saw Lilly up close when he was the head football coach and athletic director at Beckley and may have been one of the few people to believe Lilly would deliver on the promise he made each of his players when they stepped through the doors in Coal City.
Even Lilly’s own players didn’t quite believe him.
“I wouldn’t have believed we’d be here,” Independence running back Judah Price said after the Patriots’ 42-7 victory over the Herbert Hoover Huskies in the Class AA title game Friday evening at Wheeling Island Stadium. “I mentioned it but me and Cyrus (Goodson) talked yesterday about how we walked into the weight room our freshman year and it said ‘State championship under construction’ and we were like ‘That’s never going to happen at this school.’ We’re a coal camp school and not a lot of people go here, but God we did it.”
Indeed they did and it all started with Lilly’s vision.
To Price’s point he wasn’t totally off-base.
The school was mostly known, and still is, for its success on the wrestling mat where state championships are an expectation. The Patriots are usually competitive in baseball with a few state title game appearances and a championship to their name but success in football has been rare.
Last year’s team was celebrated for being the first to host a playoff game on campus and only one other team in program history was even mentioned in the same breath as the 2021 state runner-up squad.
When last year’s senior class that was highlighted by eventual Kennedy Award winner Atticus Goodson stepped up to the high school ranks, Lilly looked them in the eyes and told them ‘If you stick with me, I’ll take you to a state championship.’
Lilly did exactly that and when they didn’t win he didn’t celebrate the fact he was coaching on Wheeling Island for the first time in a career that’s spanned five decades or that his team reached a pinnacle no other had. Instead, he stood at the 50-yard line in silence after the field cleared last year, disappointed because he felt he had let down a community that supported his program.
Friday, flanked by a group of 19 seniors and several head coaches and former head coaches with championship experience, he made good on the promise to his players and community by guiding the team back to Wheeling and rewriting the history books.
His many philosophies such as “Coal Camp Tough” and “Get After Their Ass” and “There’s no amount of good a man can do if he doesn’t care who gets the credit” were all on display. His “Coal Camp Tough” offensive line paved the way for a Class AA Super Six record 548 yards of total offense. His “Coal Camp Tough” all-state running back Judah Price broke the Super Six all-class rushing yardage record with 376 while also leading his team in tackles and forcing an important red zone fumble.
That same running back was unselfish enough to credit his linemen and reward them with donuts after each game.
His defense got after the Hoover offense all night, holding the Huskies to a Super Six record 31 rushing yards, topping the previous low of 37. To boot they forced Hoover to punt the ball six times, tying a Class AA Super Six record.
Lilly didn’t care who got the credit and his players were the same way.
Anybody who’s watched the Patriots perform the Patriot Glow, a tradition where they say positive things about each other after each game win or lose, will notice Lilly’s players raise their hands and stretch them in the same manner an eager child wanting to get picked would. They can’t compliment their teammates fast enough.
Paving the way for Atticus Goodson’s Kennedy campaign last year and Judah Price’s record-shattering scoring campaign this year was an offensive line that won’t be immortalized in record books the way those runners are but they still churned forward.
Cyrus Goodson could’ve produced numbers on par with the top receivers in the state and proved as much when his number was called during the playoffs but he waited patiently for his moment and immortalized himself with his semifinal performances the last two years.
Assistant coaches Kevin Grogg, Larry Cook and Scott Cuthbert, amongst others, have all coached in state semifinal games or even state championship games as head coaches in various sports. Lilly generously shares credit with his entire staff, continuously insisting he’s surrounding himself with people who are smarter than he is.
Even after winning the title, he headed the praise on his wife and family who have endured with him through the ups and downs of his career.
The truth is while he hasn’t done it alone all of what’s transpired has been his vision from the start.
He believed Independence would be a championship program when it finished 4-6 his first season. He held that belief the following year when a 6-4 finish failed to yield a playoff berth. He believed a coal camp community could produce athletes on par with those in any corner of the state and he believed he could make good on a promise to deliver them a state championship.
“I expected us to be good but all-time greats? I wouldn’t have expected that,” Independence linebacker Jordan Harvey said. “We made school and state history. On elf the highest scoring offenses in double-A history and best defenses in double-A history. I think this is probably the most complete team that’s come through not only here but through the state as a whole.”
That confidence comes from the foundation Lilly has built and is evidence of the belief he’s built in a community that accomplished the previously unimaginable.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @tjack94