By Gary Fauber
West Virginia Sports Writers Association
John H. Lilly appreciates the opportunities he had to visit with Woodrow Wilson to help education legend Jerome Van Meter live at the meeting where he spent his last days before passing away at the age of 102 in 2003.
“I think when I went over there before he was 100 (turned), and he knew who I was, I went through the names in the district and he knew who all the coaches were,” Lily said.
“Grey Eagle” is certainly a description worthy of legend. The Illinois native eventually landed in Beckley, where he led the Flying Eagles to six state championships in basketball and three in football, and won 869 career games between the two games. he was later inducted into both the West Virginia Sports and National High School Sports halls of fame.
In 2016, she was named the West Virginia Sports Writers Association’s High School Coach of the Year Award in honor of Van Meter. Now Lily, a 32-year-old veteran of Raleigh County Education, can add her name to the list of recipients.
Lily, who led the franchise to its first state championship game in December, has been named the 2023 Van Meter Award winner as a West Virginia high school senior.
Lily beat Fairmont Senior boys basketball coach Dave Retton (Class AAA state champion), Wyoming East girls basketball coach Angie Boninsegna (Class AA state champion) and James Monroe boys basketball coach Matt Sauvage (Class AAA state champion) in statewide voting by the WVSWA.
Lily is the first Independence coach to win and the first in Raleigh County since Woodrow Wilson boys basketball coach Ron Kidd in 2008. He was the Van Meter coach of the year three times (1948, 1951, 1952).
“God works in mysterious ways, that’s for sure,” said Lily, who is also the athletic director at Independence. “He put me in a position where I really loved it and I hope to make an impact here before the end of my life.
“I think I’m more at the end of my life, a little more humble at the end of my life than I was when I was younger. And the second part of it, the award named by Coach Van Meter, because I’m from this area, also means a lot.
Lily began her head coaching career in 1991 at Shady Spring. He spent nine seasons there before moving to Woodrow Wilson for 16 seasons.
Both stayed well for Lily, but it was in Coal City where she was able to make her biggest impact.
After two seasons out of the game, Lily was hired to fill the franchise vacancy. The Patriots have had moderate success in football since the school opened in 1976, but went 1-10 all-time in the postseason before Lily started.
It did not stop him from doing so for clear purposes.
“We (the players and coaches) were together the whole time, and when I met them, we told them when they were in the seventh and eighth grade – this is a true story – I told them, “If you stay with me,” Lily said. “They looked at me like I was stupid, but I had 100 percent confidence in this group of kids that we had, very talented and if they could stick together, they were going to be special.”
It took some building, but they all delivered. The Patriots lost the first four games of Lily’s tenure but finished the 2018 season with a 4-6 record and followed it up with a 6-4 record in 2019.
Then the year of Covid 2020. During arguably the most difficult state of the football season teams have ever faced, the Patriots made their play under Lily who failed and advanced to the Class AA state quarterfinals after a loss to Frankfort, who were unable to play because of it. Its status on the covid color map.
Indy faced eventual state champion Fairmont in the quarterfinals and the Polar Bears played tough in the first half before pulling away for a 43-15 tie. But the foundation had been laid, and Liberty was wondrously woven together in the course of two years.
The 2021 team ran the table in the regular season and secured home field advantage through the state semifinals. The Patriots were blanked and set up a match with Fairmont, this time at Wheeling Island Stadium. The Polar Bears came out on top again, but in a tighter fashion, 21-12.
The puzzle was solved last fall. Indy ran a shoestring during the regular season, winning its nine games by an average margin of 54.1 points and went 3-0 again through the state semifinals. A 42-7 win over Fairmont as the Patriots got their revenge.
That set him back on his way to Wheeling, which turned out to be a lot like that. Indy defeated Herbert Hoover 42-7 to capture a perfect season and win the school’s first state championship.
And first, finally, for Lily. The end is long overdue, but he keeps it in perspective.
“It’s part of life, I want to be a good husband and a good father,” Lily said. “On the professional side, (the state championship) is the pinnacle of the game. If you can win it, it’s very important as far as your personal goals.
Lily coached back-to-back Kennedy Award winners in those two seasons — Atticus Goodson in 2021 and Judah Price in 2022. Liberty had the leading offense in the state that season, with 8,789 combined rushing yards (338.04 per game) and 11,948 yards of total offense. (459.5). Scored 140 rushing touchdowns in 26 games (25-1 record), an average of 5.4 per game.
Lily said being surrounded not only by good coaches, but by proven winners has been an integral part of building a championship program. So the players were getting invested in the system.
And perhaps the most important support of all that he received from the beginning.
“This coaching decision is a reflection of the coaches we have on staff,” Lily said. “I can tell you honestly, I have a huge advantage in the way I’m surrounded by guys. I was surrounded by Kevin Grogg, who won a state championship (at Wyoming East). Larry Cook’s was in the semifinals. State coach of the year Scott Cuthbert (baseball). Dave (Scotty) Cuthbert was so welcoming as the former head coach. Day 1 made me feel like I was part of the Liberty family. Chad Perkins, the basketball coach (at the time), was the first to meet me at the door and say, ‘Goodbye.’ we want here.’
“When you attract everyone to have a good time, it is easy for you to be happy. If everyone is arguing with each other and arguing about everything all the time, you will never win.
“God put me in this position for a reason, and I hope to make an impact. I hope I can continue.”
Lily, Price and all other individual award winners will be honored at the 76th annual Victoria Awards Dinner on May 7 at the Ambassador Suites in Charleston.
All state honors can be obtained without state, wooden plaques with name, school, year and honor at wvswa.org or bearwoodcompany.com.