Father and son reunite again -- at Grayslake North
Since he was a boy watching his dad play semipro ball, played American Legion for him, watched him mentor his college team's pitchers, and coached with him in high school, Brett Hill has beamed about the man who's always been his King of the Hill.
Rick Hill is Brett's father.
"He's a baseball lifer," said Brett, Grayslake North's head baseball coach since 2016.
Before a novel virus delivered a curveball, 2020 figured to be maybe the most special baseball season ever for the Hills. For the first time in his 64 years on earth, Rick was going to be an assistant coach to his son on the varsity level.
Rick spent the last 10 seasons coaching on Jay Czarnecki's staff at Vernon Hills, where Brett was an assistant before taking the Grayslake North job.
"From the time he went there (to Grayslake North), we talked about me going over there and coaching with him," Rick said. "But I didn't want to go right away because I wanted him to get himself established. I wanted it to be his program. Plus, I enjoyed coaching at VH. I liked the kids. Jay and I always got along really well. I have nothing but good things to say about coaching there."
Brett hasn't stopped smiling since he finalized the deal to add Dad to his staff.
"I threw it out there to my mom (Cathy, last spring)," said Brett, the oldest of Rick and Cathy's two kids and the couple's only son. "I said, 'Do you think he'll do it?' She said, 'Yeah, you can ask him. I think it's time.' "
This year has been the worst of times for many in our COVID-19 world. But while sports paused during the spring, Brett knows there are still fungoes and fun to be had with Dad. High schools are slowly allowing their athletes to have individual workouts together after more than three months of being away from each other. Brett hopes to have a summer camp soon, with his dad soft-tossing and assisting on the diamond.
"He's given a lot to the sport of baseball because he loves it," Brett said. "It's an opportunity for him to be around the game and coach with me."
Rarely have the father and son been far apart on the baseball field. A 1974 graduate of Waukegan, which won the IHSA state championship under Jack Mallory when he was a freshman, Rick began coaching in his early 20s, before he married Cathy. Rick later played in the old Shoreline Summer League for the Zion Dill Brothers, dragging along a young Brett. After Brett graduated in 1998 from Warren, where he was a three-sport athlete (football, wrestling, baseball), the catcher played one year of baseball at Trinity International University in Deerfield. Rick coached Mark Landvick's pitchers. Brett eventually transferred to the College of Lake County and then Quincy University.
Rick served seven years at Gurnee's American Legion coach, and when he was the head freshman coach at Warren, Brett was his assistant. Brett moved on to Lake Forest, returned to Warren and served as head sophomore coach for Dar Townsend. Rick was Brett's assistant.
Father and son were together again later at Vernon Hills, and then finally it came time for them to reunite at Grayslake North. Brett, whose Knights won the Northern Lake County Conference championship in 2017, needed a second assistant coach. Last summer, Rick's transition briefly included him coaching Vernon Hills' camp in the morning and Grayslake North's camp in the afternoon.
"It was the right move for our staff to get him on and going with us," Brett said. "We got everything into place. He got to know the kids and how I do the program. Not that we didn't sit and talk about it at every family gathering. We were ready to rock this spring."
And play winning baseball.
"I think everybody thinks they're going to be good when you don't actually get to play, but I had a lot of confidence in the group we had coming back this year," said Brett, whose returning Knights would have included seniors Jason Donohue, Trace Taskovic, Jeremy Rowder and Ray Shoemaker. "I really liked what we were going to put out there."
Rick retired from Warren two years ago after working 22 years in the special ed program. He and Cathy still live in Gurnee, close to Brett, who teaches special ed at Grayslake North. Rick says he's learned baseball from every coach he's worked with, and that includes his son, whose strengths include his organizational skills.
"I mean, I raised him," Rick said. "I see how he's so organized. I was always like that, but I never saw that in him."
Rick beams. His son has become him, just like Rick became his own father.
"He was there for me," Rick said of his own dad. "That's just trickled down. Parenting and family go right into sports and coaching."
Even during a pandemic.