The email arrived at the sports department from somewhere deep in the heart of Texas. Actually, the western-most tip near the New Mexico border.
Writing on a federal government laptop, Brian Lilly expressed his gratitude for being named the Democrat and Chronicle’s All-Greater Rochester girls’ Nordic Skiing Coach of the Year. Unfortunately, the Pittsford (N.Y.) coach would be unable to attend a photo shoot.
Turns out Lilly had a pretty good excuse.
Just days before the Section V meet in February, Lilly’s U.S. Army Reserve unit was deployed to Fort Bliss in El Paso. The 7412th Troop Medical Clinic, stationed in Webster, is spending a year managing medical care for soldiers training and rotating through the base.
“We had a general idea last spring we were going somewhere,’’ said Lilly, 39, a medical services officer and second in command. “As time went by and the date kept getting moved back, it finally came to be a week before sectionals that we had to report.’’
Talk about bad timing.
As his athletes were picking up their poles and skis preparing for the biggest meets of the season, Lilly was picking up his marching orders. Doing what military men and women do when duty calls. Sacrificing for their country.
Lilly and his wife, Lauren, a political science professor at RIT, have three young children: Piper, 6, Larkin, 4, and Juno, 18 months. FaceTime phone calls keep the family connected. An “X’’ through another calendar date keeps their spirits up.
“My wife is taking the brunt of it,’’ said Lilly of his first prolonged deployment in nearly 20 years in the reserves. “I’m normally a stay-at-home dad when I’m a civilian and she’s the full-time breadwinner, so she’s filling both roles when I’m gone and doing an amazing job.’’
What also amazes Lilly is how the tight-knit Rochester Nordic community — including a rival coach — rallied around him and his skiers after his season was cut short by service.
At the state championships at Gore Mountain, rather than think about waxing Pittsford in Lilly’s absence, Brighton coach Craig Mattern instead took time to help wax the skies of Lilly’s skiers and lend them guidance.
Pittsford’s team parents and assistant coach Brett Daggs who were busy waxing, worrying and wishing for positive results appreciated the help and Lilly appreciated the sportsmanship.
“It shows what type of coaches we have here in our league, Craig actually took my athletes under his wing and helped wax their skis and stuff when they went to states,’’ Lilly said. “His own daughter is one of the top skiers in the state and yet he waxed the skis for my kids out of the goodness of his heart. I almost feel guilty accepting the honor in lieu of all the things the other coaches around me did.’’
Led by Grace Mattern, Craig’s sophomore daughter, Brighton won both sectional and state team championships. But Pittsford was also able to finish its season strong, with Mendon finishing second in Section V led by the efforts of Anna Schriefer, Sara Walter and Leah Tolley.
Schriefer, of Mendon High, won sectional and state individual honors and was named AGR Skier of the Year. Section V girls took home the overall section championship at states.
“It takes a village if you will and Nordic skiing is a great community where people are willing to help each other out, which is terrific,’’ Craig Mattern said. “It’s a great community to be a part of.’’
True champions want their opponents to be at their best. That’s why Brighton can feel good that it beat a worthy foe making the best of a challenging situation missing its head coach who was off serving his country.
“It’s important that those kids are on competitive skis,’’ Mattern said. “At the end of the day you want them to do well, too, because they put in the hard work and you don’t want a kid to suffer because they weren’t able to have their skis prepped the right way.’’
If there’s a spirit that runs through each of the D&C’s AGR teams, a thread that binds, it’s knowing that when the games are over, and the pucks, balls and skis are put away, nobody will remember who won or lost. But they will remember the relationships.
These cross-country skiers, coaches and parents embodied that.
“I’m truly indebted to Craig,’’ Lilly said.
As well as the many people who helped keep his own skis in the tracks of life.
Lilly made the Fairport High Nordic team as an eighth grader, won the Section V championship as a senior, then chased the Olympic dream in the biathlon at the Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan University. He came close to making Team USA in 1998 and 2002 and also competed in military biathlon competitions.
Lilly eventually returned home and graduated from RIT where he met his wife and began paying it back as a Nordic coach. In addition to his work at Pittsford, Lilly has coached at Dartmouth College, Irondequoit High, with the U.S. Biathlon Association and Rochester XC Ski Foundation.
His biggest influence has always been his idol, ninth grade math teacher, and best man at his wedding, his dad, Bill Lilly, whose love for his son and cross-country skiing saw him volunteer his time in a variety of leadership positions at the state and national level, including president of U.S. Biathlon.
“He started out as my chauffeur driving me to all these events,’’ Brian Lilly said. “(He rose to all these positions) really with no more background in biathlon himself other than shuffling through the woods with his father, my grandfather, on cross country skis that he got in World War II.’’
From his dad, Brian Lilly learned teaching the same concepts but from different perspectives can help more kids learn and understand a lesson.
“The reason I love it most and above so many other sports is because it’s a lifetime sport,’’ Lilly said. “I’m hoping I teach kids that they can learn to love it beyond their high school years. Whether they’re competitive or just for recreation in college and beyond, I always hope that I can instill my love for it in the younger generation.’’
When Brian Lilly was called to serve, his home troops stepped forward on his behalf. Keeping life in its tracks. It does take a village.