Baseball, says Mattoon’s retiring school superintendent Larry Lilly, connects generations like nothing else. His mother, a Cardinals fan, listened Jack Buck call games on the radio with him and she played catch with Larry’s adopted 2-year-old son right after they had adopted him from Guatemala. In between, Larry himself played baseball in Beecher City and later coached in Mattoon. Jeff Owens spoke with Lilly about his love for sports, how gardening is like teaching, and moving the school into the Apollo Conference.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: When did you know it was time to retire?
LARRY LILLY: Some days, I am still not sure. I came to Mattoon High School as a student teacher in 1987 and the school district has been my home for a long time. My roles as teacher, coach, principal, and superintendent have afforded me the opportunity to build many lasting relationships in the community. Those are a blessing.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: What will you miss the most about your job?
LARRY LILLY: That’s an easy one. I will miss the people. There is great satisfaction in watching students and staff grow and serve. We have amazingly talented people in all of our schools. That was never more evident than this spring when we went from “regular school” to “remote learning” in just a few days during the pandemic. Teachers did an outstanding job helping kids continue their learning. Additionally, support staff, administrators, and others prepared and delivered 35,000 meals to our families over the last couple months of the school year. Mattoon students, staff, and community always rise to the challenge. We’ve seen that time and again over the years.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: You grew up in the Beecher City area, when did you fall in love with sports?
LARRY LILLY: My mom was a huge Cardinals fan. We listened Jack Buck and Mike Shannon call games on KMOX every night when I was a little kid.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: Is baseball your favorite sport?
LARRY LILLY: Without a doubt, baseball is the sport I love the most. It served as a connection with my mom with my son, Alex, and has provided memories that will last a lifetime. Alex was two years old when Roxanne and I adopted him in Guatemala. After returning to St. Louis, we stopped at my parents’ house in Beecher City on the way home. Mom immediately found a whiffle ball and started playing catch with Alex. She proudly proclaimed he had the arm to be a shortstop someday. Her scouting report later proved to be accurate.
In mom’s final years, she moved to Mattoon and enjoyed watching many HitMen, Wildcat, Green Wave and Post 88 baseball games. On her 86th and last birthday at Grimes Field, the Post 88 team gave her flowers, presented a cake, sang Happy Birthday, and Al hit a dinger to top off the day. She kept the newspaper clipping on her bulletin board in the nursing home and told everyone who visited that was the best birthday she ever had. Baseball is the sport that connects generations like no other.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: What was your position? Give us a scouting report on Larry Lilly the baseball player?
LARRY LILLY: I wasn’t close to the player Alex became. My scouting report would read: left-handed hitter, on-base percentage guy with no power, very slow runner – I was nicknamed Square Wheels – with a decent glove at first base.
Back in the day, IHSA had the two-class system. Beecher City’s student body had 130 kids. We were jacked up to play the mighty Mattoon Green Wave in the spring of 1983. Playing a baseball game on Grimes Field at Peterson Park was what we imagined Busch Stadium or Wrigley Field to be like. It was reminiscent of the scene from the movie Hoosiers when Coach Dale took his Hickory team to measure the height of the rims at the college arena.
Sadly, there was no upset that spring day as the Green Wave thumped us by the score of 12-5. The Journal Gazette sports page read: “Wave teaches Beecher City.” After the game, Mattoon Coach Bob Wiman offered words of encouragement and told us we could make a run at the postseason. Coach was right. Later that spring, we finished second in the IHSA Class A State Baseball Tournament.
The box score from that Mattoon-Beecher City game in 1983 included the following Green Wave players: Thompson, Steele, R. Smith, Scott, Mi. Stremming, B. Smith, Davis, Lucas, Ma. Stremming, Fuller, Gunn, Snapp, Dobbs, Huene, Shull, and some guy named Owens.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: You have also coached. Tell us about your coaching career.
LARRY LILLY: When I came to Mattoon as a full-time teacher in 1989, Coach Wiman had just retired from coaching but was still teaching driver’s education. Mark Jackley moved up from the fresh-soph position to be the varsity coach. I took over the fresh-soph team and coached four years before moving to the junior high as dean of students. I was fortunate to coach some of the greatest Green Wave players. Kevin Trimble was a freshman who played two games for me before Coach Jackley called him up to the varsity team. Never saw him in a fresh-soph uniform again.
In 1992, I was approached by long-time Mattoon Post 88 Coach John Logan with a proposition. He offered to be my fresh-soph assistant coach in the spring, if I would be his assistant Post 88 coach in the summer. That turned out to be a great deal! John Logan is the smartest baseball man I’ve ever been around, and he taught me so much about the game. We had some great teams with players like Trimble, Alexander, Allen, Harkins, Isley, Butler, Phillips, Milam, Wagner, Andrew, and so many more. Coach Logan had a way of complementing our high school team with some of the best players in nearby communities and it made for a great brand of baseball.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: What are a couple of your favorite sports memories in regards to MHS?
LARRY LILLY: Wow, that’s a tough one. MHS has enjoyed some outstanding athletic teams throughout the years. Our programs have a rich history of great coaches and excellent girls’ and boys’ teams.
One thing stands out in regard to athletics. Mattoon made a couple of attempts in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s to join the Apollo Conference but were denied both times. While some folks preferred Mattoon stay in the Big 12 Conference, it was becoming increasingly difficult to compete. The Big 12 schools were growing in size and Mattoon was not. Area schools like Charleston, Effingham, and Mt. Zion were closer to our enrollment. After working with Effingham Principal Mike McCollum and Charleston Superintendent Jim Littleford, we eventually gained admittance to the Apollo Conference in 2012. This was a win-win for our student-athletes and community.
Natural rivalries with area schools developed.
The best example is the annual Coles County Clash football game between Mattoon and Charleston on the campus of Eastern Illinois University. The Clash draws over 7,000 fans every year. Both school bands jointly play the national anthem, dance teams merge for stunning halftime performances, Team Massive and cheerleaders show school spirit, and JROTC cadets are busy with pushups after Green Wave touchdowns. Hundreds of Mattoon and Charleston students participate in this singular event which has become a rich Coles County tradition.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: You are a lifelong Cardinals fan, who are your top four Cardinals?
LARRY LILLY: It’s hard to pick only four, but my Mt. Rushmore of St. Louis Cardinals are Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Ozzie Smith, and Albert Pujols. Honorable mention to Lou Brock and newest Hall of Famer, Ted Simmons.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: How many games have you seen in St. Louis?
LARRY LILLY: We try to see as many games as we can each year. Last fall, we saw the Cardinals score 10 runs in the first inning of the NLDS Game 5 against the Atlanta Braves. That was fun. My best Busch Stadium memory was when Alex and I watched the Cardinals defeat the Texas Rangers in Game 7 of the 2011 World Series.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: How many MLB ballparks have you been to?
LARRY LILLY: I think it’s 11 – two in St. Louis, two in Chicago, Kansas City, Washington D.C., Colorado, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, Houston, and Miami.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: Any advice for young ballplayers?
LARRY LILLY: I encourage young ballplayers to play multiple sports and don’t specialize too early. Kids who play multiple sports develop athletic skills that strengthen both their physical ability and personal resolve. Skill development from one sport to another is such an important part in the growth of an athlete. And the kid that stars in one sport may be a role player in another sport, which is an important lesson in better understanding oneself, teammates, and coaches.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: How would you like to be remembered as an educator for the town of Mattoon?
LARRY LILLY: As my social media friends know, I enjoy gardening and promise not to post too many pictures of tomatoes and zucchini this summer. There are many similarities in being a gardener and an educator. The analogies are plentiful. Seedbeds are prepared, seeds are planted, young plants are watered and nurtured, and growing plants need protection when challenges arise.
The gardener simply wants plants to grow strong and produce to their fullest. The educator hopes for similar outcomes with students and staff. The fruits of this labor are the relationship formed over time. Ralph Waldo Emerson once encouraged us, “to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child or a garden path.” Hopefully, I have done some of both.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: What are your smmer and fall plans?
LARRY LILLY: Before the pandemic hit, Roxanne and I were planning to watch our grandson, Dallas Daniels, on the American Flat Track motorcycle circuit this year, including going to Sturgis, South Dakota. AFT will start its season in July, but not sure what that means for spectators. While we’ve all missed many events this spring, the crazy pandemic has afforded me the opportunity to complete home improvement projects, learn new Google skills, and spend time with family. Silver linings are everywhere. I’m not sure how well my adjustment to retirement will go. Hopefully, there will be opportunities on the horizon. Who knows, maybe I’ll find a job as an old bench coach for an area baseball team?