Saturday, July 13, 2024

A heart ailment sidelined Glacier’s Jeff Lillard a year ago; now he’s faster than ever

Daily Inter Lake | May 3, 2023 11:55 PM

Jeff Lillard chugged through the turn during the 200 meters of last April’s Swede Dahlberg Invitational and came across the tap in 23.93 seconds, which for most of us is plenty fast.

But Lillard knew something was very wrong. So did his coaches.

“He runs in the 200 finals and I don’t know that he pulled up, but he ran pretty slow,” remembered Connor Fuller, boys track coach for Glacier High. “(Then-coach Arron) Deck called him over and said, ‘Jeff, are you alright?’ And he was like, ‘No. I don’t feel good at all.’“

A visit to the doctor followed, and if it wasn’t great news, it was at least an answer for his bouts of dizziness, fatigue and neck pain.

“I just got tired way quicker than I usually do,” Lillard said this week. “And I had a high heart rate. So I decided to go in and get it checked out.”

He had a condition called pericarditis: Swelling and irritation of the tissue surrounding his heart. It was serious, and also treatable with rest and/or medication. But his track and field season was over.

“He was devastated, because he had to take six weeks off,” his dad, Glacier biology teacher David Lillard, said. “Six weeks was the low end — it was more like three months. So he was pretty devastated, as my wife and I were. We just love to watch him compete.”

Lillard, it can be said, is not a big talker. Not that he needs to be: The owner of top-5 marks in the 100, 200 and 400 (a state-best 49.66 seconds) speaks volumes by his actions.

“He’s stoic,” Fuller said. “He does his work. He doesn’t let other things outside of his control bother him. And he’s a kid that gives relentless effort.”

If his track career is a little star-crossed — his freshman season was wiped out by the pandemic, remember — Lillard doesn’t let on. It is a true, "It is what it is,” attitude. He was bummed last spring, certainly. “But I knew I had one more year,” he added.

By mid-August of last year Lillard felt good. He fully participated in cross country (finishing 85th at the state championships) and basketball (a reserve on a 17-8 squad that finished third at state).

“No more symptoms,” he said.

Then came track season, and it came early. He competed in some indoor meets while basketball season was still going.

Outdoors, he’s been extremely sound. As of this writing he’s run nine sprints and won eight. The “loss” came last Thursday in a dual with Sentinel in which he covered 100 meters in 10.99 seconds (Sentinel’s Hudson Lembke clocked 10.93).

The 400 he ran in two days before that, in the Pilcher Top 10, was most impressive. He powered through the final 200 and past five competitors to set his PR. You can see why it’s his event of choice: It’s a combination of speed and endurance. Once again he has plenty of both.

Last season the Wolfpack made a run at a state title in Deck’s last season as coach. They scored more points than projected in Butte. The rub was so did Missoula Sentinel, which won the title by nine, 89-80.

In the stands at Bulldog Memorial Stadium were Lillard and Kash Goicoechea, another Glacier sprinter who missed the season after shoulder surgery.

If both were healthy — Lillard’s 52.12 on April 1 of 2022 was still the third-fastest 400 time for AA three weeks later — it’s quite conceivable the Pack would’ve overtaken the Spartans.

“That was one of the bummers, too,” David Lillard said. “Those guys could have easily scored nine points.”

“I definitely think the same thing,” Jeff Lillard said. “If we were healthy, we probably would have won it.” Then he pauses. “Can’t change anything now.”

David and the former Annie Grayson met while both were swimming for Whitworth University in Spokane. David earned a degree in wildlife biology, then sought a Masters in divinity at Princeton.

It was there that David and Annie, a Flathead High grad who teaches at Hedges Elementary, adopted 5-year-old Jeff and his 2-year-old brother Simon from Haiti. Not long after that the family moved to Kalispell.

Before you could say, “Highlanders Track Club,” Jeff Lillard was running. Now Montana and Montana State are paying attention, along with his parents’ university, Whitworth. A 3.8 grade-point average helps. So does work ethic, speed and attitude.

“He works hard at everything he does,” David Lillard said. “He’s had some hard things happen to him in life, and he responds with hard work. I think that’s a great quality in a person.”


Glacier's Jeff Lillard (22) takes an open shot in the third quarter against Flathead during crosstown basketball at Glacier High School on Friday, Jan. 20. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)


Glacier's Jeff Lillard takes the baton from Connor Sullivan during the boys 400 meter relay at a crosstown track and field meet at Glacier High School on Tuesday, April 19. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)