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A fresh start for baseball, new coach

Jon Maletz
New Aspen High baseball coach Matt Lilleberg throws the baseball around Wednesday with some of his players in the school's gym. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)
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The very thought of baseball seems unusual and out of place in this ski town.Blades of grass are buried under feet of snow and won’t see sunlight for the foreseeable future. Cross-country ski tracks, not cleats, have mark the playing fields behind Aspen High School. More snow is in the forecast.It’s unlikely that anything but yet another powder day consumes anyone’s thoughts. Anyone except Matt Lilleberg.”Coming from Minnesota, I’ve gotten used to these indoor practices,” The 25-year-old said.The crack of leather on aluminum echoed through middle school corridors Wednesday, just like they have since December. Three times a week, Skiers players converge on the gym to take part in informal practices.The practices are voluntary and will not become mandatory until Feb. 21. And while the turnout on this night was sparse – only three of an estimated roster of 25 wandered in – there is no lack of enthusiasm, or excitement. The coach and his players smiled and joked as they worked on bunting drills and field ground balls with their bare hands. The three were quick to listen when the coach offered advice on straightening out a batting stance or staying down on the ball.

“It’s been pretty intense, and I’m already learning some new stuff,” junior catcher Jeff Lagrua said. “We’re having a lot of fun and it seems like we’re more together.”Judging from the interaction, it’s hard to believe Lilleberg first met his players one month ago.In August, Wells Fargo in Aspen offered Lilleberg, a Minnesota native, a financial consulting job. Not long after, he packed his belongings into a trailer and headed west, leaving friends, family and the farm behind.In November, Lilleberg first heard of the coaching opportunity from co-worker Anna Zane, wife of Aspen softball coach Ed Zane. He saw an ad in the paper and was immediately intrigued.”I was looking for a chance to go out and be active in the community,” Lilleberg said. “I always wanted to be around baseball.”Lilleberg was 4 when he picked up the game, a decision driven primarily by his desire to shirk his responsibilities on the family farm in Atwater, he said. Spending half the day playing with friends meant less time milking cows and tending to corn and soybean crops. As the youngest of four children, there was always someone to pick up his slack.The game quickly evolved into one of Lilleberg’s passions. He remembers making the two-hour drive to Minneapolis to watch the Twins; trips were rare but always memorable. He played infield at Ridgewater Community College in Willmar, Minn. At one point the team was nationally ranked, although Lilleberg acknowledged, “I wasn’t a major part of that.”

While he was rarely the most talented player on the field – or his own team – Lilleberg said his strength was his knowledge and respect for the game. It is a philosophy he has already begun to impart on his players.”In football you have to be big, and in basketball you have to have height, but in baseball, if you are a good worker, you’ll be OK,” Lilleberg said. “This is a game of tradition, and it’s important to play it the right way.”Such was the philosophy Lilleberg discussed in his interview with Aspen High athletic director Carol Sams and assistant principal Bradford Bates. Lilleberg’s exuberance and zeal made him the obvious choice, Sams said.”I liked his enthusiasm for the sport and his enthusiasm for working with young people,” said Sams, who interviewed four candidates. “I think we have a great returning group. It should be an interesting year. I’m excited.”Lilleberg admitted his lack of experience is both a positive and negative. He will make mistakes, and while he is quick not to discount the importance of the upcoming season, he is grateful that underclassmen make up the majority of his team. His age will be an advantage, Lilleberg insists. The small age gap between him and his players means it will be easy for Lilleberg to relate. And because he is new to the area and offers a fresh perspective, Lilleberg said he is completely devoid of the biases that can cloud a coach’s judgment.”Since I’m from the outside, I don’t know these kids or how they’ve done,” Lilleberg said. “I think one of the reasons Carol hired me was because she wanted somebody fresh and to bring some youth to the team.”The team has bonded over games of wiffle ball and home-run derby. In a more relaxed atmosphere, the players are having more fun, Lagrua said.

“We get along so great,” Lagrua said. “He is such a great person to be around.”But don’t be confused by the new coach’s carefree demeanor. Lilleberg, who knew nothing but success as a player, is intent on making Aspen a competitive force.In many ways he sees himself in his players, Lilleberg said. They are not the biggest or the fastest. Intelligence, effort and a reliance on the fundamentals will be points of emphasis. It is obvious that players and coach are already on the same page.”The kids that have been here are awesome,” Lilleberg said. “I’m really encouraged. They have been [champing] at the bit and asking me to do drills.”The changes have been drastic, but having baseball back in his life is making Lilleberg feel right at home in Aspen.”I’ve been loving every aspect of it,” Lilleberg said of the experience. “I can see myself being out here for a long time.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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