After trying final season Mountain Ridge baseball coach passes baton

Mountain Ridge baseball coach Lance Billingsley during a game this spring. Billingsley resigned once the season ended. [Donna Mundy/For West Valley Preps]
By Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

Lance Billingsley knew the 2017 season would be his last as the Mountain Ridge baseball coach well before the first practice.

Work as an associate broker for a local realty group dramatically increased, so in the fall he and school administrators agreed on one more season. Then his mother, Marian, could no longer live on her own as her dementia worsened.

The family moved her into an adult-care home Jan. 25, right before the season started. So Billingsley decided to stay on, but made contingency plans with assistant coach Artie Cox and the staff in case he missed games.

“Emotionally I was drained. Physically too,” Billingsley said. “But I couldn’t leave with tryouts being in a week.”

He said he’s still not quite sure how, but the coach made it through the Mountain Lions’ 21-11-1 season without missing a game. As soon as the year ended in the final eight of the 6A Conference, it was time for the school to find a successor.

Cox emerged as the long-term solution. The Glendale school announced his role as the new head coach on May 24.

“I’m really excited that we can keep this thing going,” Cox said.

Indeed, in the four years since local little league coach Billingsley took over and hired Cox and the rest of his staff, Mountain Ridge has transformed into an elite baseball program in Arizona.

Billingsley and his staff arrived at a program that finished 9-14 in 2013 with the goal of making Mountain Ridge known as a baseball school statewide.

“I think that mission has been accomplished,” Billingsley said.

Cox was his first hire as a pitching coach, even though the two men barely knew each other. After a 19-11 year in 2014, the Mountain Lions placed third in Division I in 2015 and second in 2016.

A five-year turnaround plan was cut in half.

“I’m really excited that we can keep this thing going,” Cox said.

Billingsley said he tried to approach the 2017 season as normally as possible. During the spring he and his wife, Jennifer, were negotiating several real estate transactions to put together a setup where his father, David, lives in a guest house on the same property. David and Marian Billingsley have been married 57 years.

Lance Billingsley had not shared his departure with the team, but by the time of the Coach Bob Invitational everyone on the team knew. He said he did not give the kids a, win one for the Gipper-type speech.

At the year-end banquet the program paid tribute to the coach, and he realized he was fortunate to leave on his own terms.

“I’m leaving with 24 kids that have gone to play at the next level,” Billingsley said. “But what makes me most proud is, more of the kids I had in the program are going to college on academic scholarships than baseball scholarships.”

Cox said he also feels fortunate to take over the program when it is in full gear. The determining factor for him was when his daughter decided not to play sports in high school, which she starts this fall.

This spring showcased impressive freshman and sophomore classes that will only grow, Cox said.

Most of the staff will remain next year. The new coach said he is only looking for an additional pitching coach and one more assistant.

“My plan is not to change anything, really. It’s been a good formula, why change it?” Cox said.

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