Rick Lilly’s arrival at Handley High School will always be associated with an important time in his family’s history.

With family very much on his mind, Lilly has decided to leave his position as Handley’s director of student activities six years later.

The 40-year-old Lilly informed Handley administration on Monday that he has decided to take the job of activities director at Highland Springs High School. The Henrico County school is less than 10 miles from Richmond and is in Class 5, the second largest of the state’s public school classifications. Lilly will begin working at Highland Springs on Aug. 6.

Neither Handley principal Mike Dufrene or Winchester Public Schools superintendent Jason Van Heukelum could be reached to talk about the timeline for hiring a replacement.

Lilly, a Charlottesville native, said the entire families for both he and his wife Hannah live in central Virginia.

Lilly said his wife’s brother lives in Richmond, and his children are the same age as his 8-year-old son Whitner and 6-year-old daughter Ada. Ada was born on May 14, 2012, the day that Handley announced that it had hired Lilly as its DSA. Lilly said he will live in Richmond.

Lilly said the decision to leave Handley was not an easy one. He said he and his wife have both been making positive strides in their careers.

In addition to his responsibilities at Handley, Lilly was looking forward to completing the last year of his doctoral program in educational leadership at Shenandoah University. (Lilly said he’s worked out a plan where he could still make that work with his move.) Lilly’s wife Hannah, who was working as an art teacher at Powhatan School, also has an art business. (Lilly said she has a website and plans on continuing to grow her business.)

“We were happy,” Lilly said. “We loved where we were. We were really excited about the upcoming school year, and the community, and everything else.

“The driving force in this move is family. We need to move back to the central Virginia area to be a little closer to family. They’re dealing with some health issues. When this opportunity popped up a couple of weeks ago, it was something we were interested in.”

Lilly said his own health problems last year reinforced just how important family is to him. Lilly said from July 23-25 he spent three days in the University of Virginia’s cardiac unit.

“It put things in perspective, and I realized that I needed to get closer to some of my family members,” Lilly said. “It really forced me to prioritize things and get some things back in focus in my life. It reminded me that I needed to make sure that I’m living a balanced life. For the last calender year, I’ve prioritized working out, taking better care of myself.”

Lilly said one of the reasons why he feels so good about Highland Springs is that it’s not only closer to family, but it will give him a chance to advance his career.

Two of Lilly’s best friends are Highland Springs employees. George Webb is a teacher and Brad Alston is an administrative intern. Both are assistant coaches on the football team, which won the Class 5 state championship last year.

“They both speak very highly of the school, and I have several other very close colleagues that work in Henrico that I spoke with before I applied,” Lilly said. “And it’s a larger school [than Handley], so it will allow opportunities for me to grow professionally once I finish my doctorate. There will be opportunities as either a central office [athletic director] or going the assistant principal, principal route.

“I haven’t decided firmly on when I’m going to make that transition, but there will be opportunities to grow professionally in an area where we can be stable and not move around. That was one of the priorities for my wife.”

Lilly said another plus to working at Highland Springs is that he will not have to be in the office for the month of July. Lilly said Hannah works at a church conference center in western North Carolina in the summer, and Lilly will be able to spend July with her there.

Though there are a lot of reasons for Lilly to look forward to going to Highland Springs, there’s a lot of reasons why Lilly is going to miss Handley.

“The idea of even considering [another job], before I could even really think about it, it’s just agonizing to have to walk away from a such and unique situation,” Lilly said. “The community really embraced us when I first got here six years ago in ways that I never even imagined possible. My wife and I are eternally grateful. It was an outpouring of support, and so much hope, and so much promise for the program.

In addition to being supportive of Lilly’s wife and children, Lilly said Handley officials and coaches also played a big role in the development of his niece Miriah Smith, whom he took custody of in January of 2013. She graduated from Handley in 2015 and is now a rising senior at Virginia Tech. Lilly said she competed in volleyball, basketball, and track.

From principal Mike Dufrene, to former athletic director Jimmy Omps, to former boys’ basketball Tommy Dixon, Lilly said he had numerous influential and helpful relationships at Handley.

Lilly has also made a strong impact on the people he’s met at Handley.

One of those is boys’ basketball coach Jason Toton, whom Lilly hired to replace Dixon prior to the 2013-14 season after Dixon retired from coaching after 27 seasons. In five seasons, Toton has led Handley to three state tournaments, including the second and third state finals appearances in school history.

“He’s been very instrumental in helping me become the coach that I’ve become,” Toton said. “He kind of mentored me behind the scenes on how to handle things. He put a lot of hard work and effort into things that I don’t think a lot of people understand. The hours and the commitments that are required of him to do that job, it’s a lot.”

Toton said he appreciates the role Lilly did to provide special moments for the athletes by giving him the freedom to seek out interesting scheduling opportunities. Handley played in the Norfolk Scope Holiday Classic this year. In December, the Judges will play in the Panther Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C., a tournament the Judges had been trying to get into for three years.

Lilly helped schedule the state basketball quarterfinal games for the Handley boys and the Millbrook girls at Shenandoah University’s new James R. Wilkins Jr. Athletics and Events Center, which was attended by more than 2,600 fans.

“He asked what I thought about doing that, and I thought it would be a great opportunity,” Toton said. “Within a matter of days, he got on the phone and got that worked out. To be able to have a great community event like that was great.”

Handley also secured the Wilkins Center for the state semifinals, which was won on a Michael Brown buzzer-beater against defending state champion Loudoun Valley.

Lilly has achieved several notable individual achievements — he was named the State 3A/4A Athletic Director of the Year by the Virginia Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association in 2014, and he’s also served as president of the VIAAA in 2016-17 — but what he’s truly proud of is celebrating the accomplishments of others.

Lilly said the 2017-18 school year was a memorable one to finish with at Handley.

Dixon’s name was placed on the Maddex-Omps Gymnasium floor in a ceremony in November (it was announced the previous year that it would be called Coach Tommy Dixon Basketball Court). The boys’ basketball team played in its third state final in school history after winning their state quarterfinal and semifinal games at SU. Like the basketball team, the forensics team and the girls’ tennis team also finished second in the state. The boys’ soccer team earned its first state tournament berth since 2004. In track & field, Trey Causey, Taylor Beard and Casey Nelson each won state championships and excelled at the national level. On a project level, Lilly got the artificial turf replaced at James R. Wilkins Jr. Stadium.

“There’s so many things about this year that were good culminating events,” Lilly said. “But at the same time there’s so much promise coming back next year, I will wait eagerly to see how everyone does, and watch the programs continue to grow.

“My relationship with the coaches I’ve had here, it’s something I’ll always be grateful for. The Winchester community will always be special to us, and I still plan to be involved. I plan to come back for events. The relationships I’ve made in the last six years, they transcend job titles and addresses.”

Toton will enjoy the chance to see Lilly anytime he returns.

“Besides him being professional, I’ll miss him as a great friend,” Toton said. “We always had a strong relationship of camaraderie and looking out for each other. He’ll be missed by the Handley family.”

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at rniedzwiecki@winchesterstar.com Follow on Twitter @WinStarSports1

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