Dave Lillard has been a measured, unwavering and successful coach of the running sports for two decades in Frederick County, but he couldn’t avoid getting tripped up recently when addressing his Oakdale High boys athletes.
It wasn’t in person, because the coronavirus shutdown prevented that. He had to record a message to them, and it proved to be “pretty hard.” He had to tell them he was departing as their coach to take the same positions at Catoctin High.
“I did a couple of takes,” Lillard said of his video farewell. “I didn’t get too emotional after that. They saw it was a tough decision for me. But I told them it wasn’t anything that anybody did. It was just something I had to do for me and my family.”
He will continue teaching science at Oakdale, but he’ll coach all three seasons at Catoctin, which is closer to his home just over the Pennsylvania border.
And so ends a 10-year run in which Lillard oversaw hundreds of athletes while spawning, rearing and developing championship-caliber programs in cross-country and indoor and outdoor track for Oakdale, which opened in 2010.
His coaching move was official in March. But he didn’t make the announcement until after the banquet for his state-championship indoor track team. Because, in typically modest fashion, “I wanted the banquet to be about them, and not about Lillard leaving,” he said Wednesday over the phone.
Afterward, he received messages from many of his athletes, understanding in tone, but also sad. Lillard, after all, is the kind of coach who fosters a culture of “brotherhood” among his teams.
His devotion, and the talent on his rosters, eventually led to the Bears winning six state titles — one in cross-country, three in indoor track and two in outdoor track.
That doesn’t count, he said, “probably four or five second-place trophies as well. And we would’ve won outdoor this year [if the pandemic hadn’t cancelled spring sports]. I’m not being cocky. It would’ve been hard to beat us this year.”
Most recently, he played a part in helping 2020 graduate Kyle Lund become a nationally renowned middle-distance runner.
But ask Lillard, and aside from the incredibly difficult workouts he can cook up for his charges, he directs credit at the kids.
“Oakdale’s an unbelievable program, and it really boils down to the kids,” said Lillard, who was previously at Urbana High for 11 years. “The kids are just great, and they’re easy to work with because of that. It makes me look good as a coach, to be quite honest with you.”
Lillard ran off a list of names that he said are responsible for what Oakdale accomplished during his tenure, starting with Connor Good and ending with Lund and Collin Dempsey, his most recent stars.
“Championships are built, they come around,” Lillard said. “And when they come around, it’s something that other athletes kind of guided and kind of did for you years ago — years before those other athletes even come in.
“Hindsight being 20-20, that’s really where it was.”
Prompted for specific highlights from his time at Oakdale, he mentioned 2012, when his 4x800 team upset Thomas Johnson for one of the program’s first county victories. Then, in 2017, he took a foursome in that event to the Penn Relays. Chase De Maille, Matt Shaefer, Matt Hooper and Evan Kowalk ran an eye-popping school-record time of 7 minutes, 50 seconds.
Lillard said his most prominent memories, though, are from practices where he got to know his athletes, saw them grow closer and put in the work that led to building a perennial champion.
Next, he hopes to do the same at Catoctin, where he’ll team up with previous head coach Lois Strickland.
“Our student-athletes, we’ve hit the jackpot here,” Cougars athletic director Keith Bruck said.
“If you’re around the guy any amount of time, you can tell how much he loves cross-country and track. Lois has done a fabulous job, but we needed somebody else to help build the program. This guy brings instant credibility. Hopefully he attracts more kids to the program.”
Oakdale athletic director Chris Krivos said he hopes to have Lillard’s old coaching positions filled soon.