Matt Hillis has spent a lot of time reflecting recently. After decades of coaching baseball, every crack of the bat, every pop of the glove, every sound and smell of the game can evoke a memory. So it might come as a surprise that a major milestone snuck up on him. But it wasn’t until the topic of his baseball coaching friend’s 100th win came up that he researched exactly where he himself stood. He checked the book, and it turned out he was sitting on 299 wins as Fox Lane baseball coach. Then, this past Thursday, May 2, his Foxes shutout the Port Chester Rams 6-0, and Hillis had reached the magical 300.
“I didn’t know about it till the day before,” noted Hillis. “You might reflect even more after a milestone win. It’s almost like it happens daily now, you’re just constantly drumming up memories, almost anywhere you walk on the field reminds you of a moment.”
Leaders of strong programs realize that moments of game-time success are built on player and coach development, including at the youth level. John Boucher’s son David, a high school junior, is a pitcher for Fox Lane, and Boucher’s older son Andrew played for Hillis in 2010 and 2011.
“Annually, (Hillis) and his players hold a clinic for the Mount Kisco Little League and youth baseball program, which is something he does not have to do,” observed Boucher, a Mount Kisco Little League coach himself. “The Little League players learn skills, and the Little League coaches learn drills and techniques to help them better teach the game.”
When speaking to those who know Hillis’ body of work best, a common theme emerges: that of a man intent on building a sturdy, consistent, unified organization with all stakeholders embracing the approach while instilling positive values into the student-athletes who go through the program.
“Matt Hillis is a master coach and leader,” remarked Chris Coughlin, Director of Health, Physical Education and Athletics at Fox Lane High School. “Coach Hillis in not just the head coach of our varsity team, he runs our baseball program like a college program. He has been so successful because he employs a systematic approach to the program having all levels focus on a common approach to the game. He has developed a strong and proud culture of success that many of our talented athletes seek to be a part of. His 300 wins on the field do not compare to the immeasurable positive impact he has had on his players’ lives teaching lessons of determination, commitment and good sportsmanship.”
The dedication and planning displayed by Hillis to build an institution, not just transient teams, has not gone unnoticed by the broader Fox Lane athletic community either.
“Matt Hillis is the most well respected, well liked, winningest coaches to ever work at Fox Lane,” Fox Lane Sports Booster Club board members Sharon Luppino and Lauren Torre posted to social media. “We are lucky to have such a dedicated, selfless coach mentoring our baseball players.”
A lifetime of coaching baseball didn’t always seem inevitable for the 55-year-old Hillis. While playing the majority of his college baseball at Iona, and studying biology, chiropractor school was on the young man’s mind. But in 1989, when an opening to serve as the hitting coach at Columbia University arose, the 24-year-old Hillis seized the opportunity.
“I immediately loved coaching,” recalled Hillis, who is also a living environment science teacher at Fox Lane. “I thought it would be really difficult to transition from player to coach, that I’d still have a desire to play. But you have to find a different ambition inside you. Now I’d have to get my players to feel that need to compete and work to get better every day.”
After inspiring that need for his players at Columbia, Hillis took a hitting coach job with Army baseball in 1998, and the values he learned working at West Point, and Columbia before it, helped produce the philosophy he eventually brought to Fox Lane. A unified message and a systematic approach are hallmarks of successful college athletic programs, and perhaps even more so in a military setting. Hillis had to know he could bring that view with him to the fields of Fox Lane. In fact, when speaking with former Fox Lane Athletic Director Tom Caione before taking the high school job in 2002, Hillis relayed his need to bring a college program approach to the district’s baseball operation. He wasn’t just looking to coach. If Hillis were to take on the role, he intended to construct a genuine program.
“I wanted to create a program from modified to varsity where everyone was speaking the same language and preaching the same things,” Hillis explained. “If we have that, that’s a big step in the right direction. We need coaches to buy in and players will follow suit. That’s the foundation of what we’ve built.”
And the foundation for many more memories and milestones to come.