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An Episcopal, co-educational 100% boarding school in Middletown, Delaware for grades 9 – 12

The Saints' Comeback Kid | Mike Lilley ’22
Chris Hayes

The Athletic Journey and Impact of Mike Lilley ’22

Two years ago, coming in to St. Andrew’s a new sophomore, Mike Lilley ’22 made major impacts as soon as he donned a Saints jersey. For Saints football, he was one of the top defenders on the team, and moved into the starting quarterback spot when he became an upperclassman. For Saints basketball, he was a force on the boards, and for Saints lacrosse, he was anticipated to become one of the leading scorers on the team, before the spring 2020 season was canceled due to the pandemic. Mike had a bright future ahead of him in the red and black—but you already know this is comeback story, and unfortunately all comeback stories have to have the low moment that makes it a comeback story. This moment happened to Mike during the summer of 2020 while playing club lacrosse in his home state of New Jersey. His knee was bothering him and he made a step that nearly dislocated his knee and caused bone bruises. Mike was able to make a quick recovery but a wayward lacrosse stick made contact with the bone bruise a week later and things became a nightmare. He lost a lot of cartilage, was in constant pain, and had to make the tough decision to shut his athletic career down for an indefinite period. But Mike, being the optimist he is, found this silver lining: “With being home and not able to play,” he recalls, “I was able to spend a lot of time with my family and do things I enjoyed.” 

This optimistic attitude is what ultimately guided Mike back to the field and courts. With his junior year football season cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions, Mike saw an opportunity to rehabilitate his knee in the fall of 2020, but he acknowledged that there were some tough days. “I would have been the starting quarterback,” he says. “Being in the training room left me feeling disconnected. I did try to keep a positive attitude any time I was out at practice.” The 2020-21 winter athletics season was also cancelled (St. Andrew’s was in virtual term at that time) and with no basketball season, Mike returned home looking to be ready for lacrosse on campus in the spring of 2021, and his rehabilitation was finally hitting a turning point going into that season. Students would be back on campus, SAS would return to interscholastic competition, and Mike was ready to return to the field. In his first lacrosse game he scored multiple goals, but a setback happened in the second game of the season: someone ran into his knee and Mike had to start all over from scratch. “After watching Mike rehab as a junior and then getting hurt again in his first real action on an unfortunate play was heartbreaking,” Saints lacrosse Head Coach Kolyn Kirby shared. “As a coach, your heart goes out to an athlete that you've seen work so hard for so long, only to have it taken away yet again, However, he didn't miss a beat and got right back to rehabbing and trying to get back on the field again.” 

Mike had learned a lot from the previous year of rehab. While the feeling of disappointment was there, he knew what the process looked like and knew how to approach the process physically and mentally. The doctors and physical therapists worked tirelessly, but thought that he would only play football his senior year. Mike did not tell them he had other plans: “I had a goal in mind to play basketball and lacrosse. I had to basically give up my summer to focus on rehab. It was all to set myself up to get through the three sport seasons.” 

Fall 2021 came and Mike entered preseason football ready and in high spirits. While he had learned a lot over the past year and a half, he had to learn something new: equipment preparation time. “​​I was ill prepared when it came to the equipment and the new brace I had to wear to stabilize my knee,” Mike recalls. “I had to learn how to run in it, cut in it, and how long it took to put on.” After his first practice, he knew immediately he would have to give up his hope of playing defense and could only play at quarterback. Even with a more limited role on the team, it was a grind to stay on the field, but it was worth it. Thanks to Saints football Head Coach Patrick Moffitt’s flexibility and understanding, Mike had a terrific season. “We were planning on cutting back on his time on the field on defense anyway as the starting quarterback, but we definitely didn't expect him to not play any defense at all,” Coach Moffitt recalls. “We also had to change plans on offense. Mike's stature screams prototypical drop back quarterback, but one thing that he was really gifted at was running the football and we had planned to have a lot of QB-designed runs and reads in the run game for him. We had to adjust that and he ultimately became more of a drop back passer, which he ended up flourishing at.”

Mike started every game for the Saints and put up record-breaking numbers. Against Glasgow, Mike set the St. Andrew’s single game passing record with ​​355 yards passing and five passing touchdowns, in only three quarters. For the season, his 112 pass completions and 203 passing attempts were a school single-season record. He came up just short of the school record of 1,632 passing yards and 20 touchdowns, but still finished with impressive numbers of 1,573 passing yards and 19 passing touchdowns. He led the team to a 6-3 regular season record and the team’s first playoff berth in close to a decade. The numbers are impressive, but Coach Moffitt talked about what Mike brought to the team and to the field that the numbers do not show, “He would have to sit some practice periods out, but he was always a very encouraging teammate,” Coach Moffitt shared. “He would work with the younger quarterbacks and help them understand the offense. When his knee felt good, he served as the scout team quarterback.” After a tough loss in the first round of the playoffs, it was time for Mike’s second act of the school year: getting on the court for basketball. 

Despite having his mind set on basketball since the summer, playing basketball at the beginning of the season was not going to happen. “For football I had to get in with Mr. Wood 45 minutes early,” Mike recalls. “My leg was still building back muscle and I needed to take time to work on that without playing a sport. It became a roll of the dice if I would step on the court. Things were unclear in November and December. I could sprint up and down the court and my knee felt great, but anytime I would move side-to-side or jump, it would hurt.” Just as with Coach Moffitt, Saints basketball Head Coach Terrell Myers was flexible and patient with Mike. He told Mike to take the time to rehab and not worry about getting on the court until January or February. Mike was in the training room consistently, but he had learned from his football experience, and made the effort to stay engaged with the team. He could be spotted at practices helping in any way  that he could. “Mike was engaged every practice and worked extremely hard to get back into playing shape,” Coach Myers said. At games, he was on the bench as one of the biggest cheerleaders for his teammates. This helped him transition back into basketball once he got the all-clear to play.

Finally, in the second quarter of a game against Newark Charter, part two of Mike’s goal became reality; Coach Myers called for him to enter the game. Mike was so excited that his four minutes on the court could have been a little smoother: “It was comical. My first play was a turnover. I turned to the basket and thought I had an easy shot only for a player to easily poke the ball out my hands. I then air-balled a three pointer by five feet. Coach Myers joked with me about it and kept my spirits high. I just couldn't believe I was out there.” Things turned around quickly for Mike and he became an integral member of the team as they went on an impressive win streak to end the season. Coach Myers talked about Mike’s immediate impact: “He was the anchor to our defense, and his presence gave everyone on the team confidence. There is no doubt that he was the missing piece. Once he returned to the team we began to play our best basketball of the season." 

In the final game of the season against a talented Sanford team at home, Mike made a major impact on the game by his play and energy. “It was the first time I had started that season, and I played most of the game. The energy of the packed gym kept me going. I got a fast break bucket, I turned and ran to pump up the crowd and everyone was going crazy.” His knee started hurting and his brace was beginning to come apart by the fourth quarter, but Mike had one thing on his mind: “We had to get the win for the home crowd!” The team won the game and Mike was in the middle of the court with students mobbing him as they poured from the stands. “That's what you think of when you think of high school basketball,” he says. “It was a memory for life.” As with football in the fall, Mike had helped the Saints secure another playoff berth, and after a great run to the quarterfinals for the basketball team, Mike was now on to his third act. 

This is the part of the comeback story where you may find it hard to believe that there could be any more setbacks. Well, for Mike getting on the lacrosse field would not be easy. He had rolled his ankle in the state basketball tournament and also found out he needed a preliminary surgery for his major surgery on his knee in the summer. Mike took it in stride, kept positive, and made it his mission to play lacrosse for the first time as a Saint. “It’s hard to believe but as of this March, I still had not had a real high school lacrosse season at St. Andrew’s,” Mike points out. “I was at another school my freshman year, sophomore year was canceled, and junior year I was injured.” Though he was itching to get on the field, he took what he had learned from basketball season: patience. “I said goodbye to the first five games of the season and set my sights on a return on April 5.” 

Once again, Mike proved to everyone else, and to himself, that he could do this. He made his first appearance against Tower Hill School on April 5 as planned, and immediately scored a goal. In the first eight games of Mike’s return, the team went 6-2. Like his other coaches, Coach Kirby talked about Mike’s immediate impact, “To have a player who understands the game and can play it with both hands with such ease—the importance of that can not be understated,“ Coach Kirby explains. “His left hand is so good, even though he is a natural right-handed player, that other teams genuinely think that he is left-handed. He has been a leader and presence for our team throughout his rehab and that has only increased since having him back on the field.” 

Mike’s best game this season came on the road against Tatnall April 23. Last year Tatnall prevented the Saints from making the state tournament. This midseason matchup had become a must-win game for the Saints, but the team was down at the end of the first half 8-5. The offense found life in the second half as Sage Cookerly ’22 scored two goals to close the deficit. With 1:48 remaining, Mike scored the game-tying goal to send the game to overtime. Mike shares what transpired in overtime: “Four minutes in, I noticed I had a little space to the right of the goalie. I drove in and the defender committed too far in front of me. I planted my leg and spun. It’s a move I've been working on since my injury. I saw a sliver of the goal open on the right side and my lefty shot is pretty accurate. I knew I was shooting this because this is what I had been working towards my whole life, especially the past two years. I buried it right past the goalie and ran to celebrate with Flynn [Bowman ’22, Saints goalkeeper]. It was the fastest I've run in years!” 

While reminiscing about the play, Mike burst into an ear-to-ear grin, then came back down to earth to reflect and share what he had learned the past two years. “I think back and I wish I could tell myself and others going through what I did that you have to be patient—you have to,” he says. ”It will be really hard because you have to watch all the games, you see your teammates, playing, having fun, knowing you would fit right into that lineup, but you have to be patient.”

Mike took a deep breath and continued: “The other big thing for me was accepting it. For the longest time, especially last year, I tried to play like I was fully healthy, I played like I was normal. I would tell people, ‘Oh, don't worry about me, I'm fine.’ I still take that approach, but you have to accept what is happening. Instead of griping, I became focused on getting to the gym early to stretch. I had to adjust in practice; I have to stay upright and not bend my knees. I cannot sit to rest or take a knee—otherwise, I'm not gonna be able to walk the next day. I never expected the amount of free periods I would spend in the training room riding the bike or strengthening the muscle.”

“Patience is key,” Mike concludes, “and so is a little bit of humility.” 

Mike’s dedication to recovery has helped him reach his goal of being a three-sport athlete at St. Andrew’s. He has made his impact as a Saint; he’s now etched into the school’s football record books, the lore of a storm-the-court basketball win, and the thrill of a game-winning overtime lacrosse goal.