* LHP Conor Lillis-White (Toronto, Ont.) , a Toronto Mets grad, was named the co-winner of the Bus Philips Memorial trophy at the 94th annual Big Block award banquet. ….
By C.J. Pentland
As a high-schooler, Conor Lillis-White already knew about the University of British Columbia’s academic reputation and the strength of the school’s baseball program.
When on his recruiting visit – one he went on with current Toronto Blue Jay and fellow Ontaria high schooler Dalton Pompey – he then discovered how beautiful the campus is.
These factors had already helped UBC stand out from the American universities he had previously visited, but it was a conversation with former assistant coach Cav Whiteley during the visit that made it clear to Lillis-White that UBC was the school for him.
“He said the most rewarding thing for him is when he used to play and [the Thunderbirds] would be down in California and boat-racing some American team, and Cav said he’d get to first base and the first baseman would ask ‘so how many of you are actually Canadian’?”
Cav said nothing gave him more pride than looking at the guy and saying ‘every last one of them’. That really resonated with me.”
Five years after taking the trip from Toronto to Vancouver to continue his baseball career at UBC, Lillis-White has continued that T-Bird tradition of showing Americans what Canadian ballplayers are capable of. Yet his performance on the field last year didn’t just catch the eyes of opponents in the NAIA – it also earned him one of the top athletic honours at UBC.
At UBC’s annual 94th annual Big Block Award Banquet, Lillis-White was named a co-winner of the Bus Philips Memorial Trophy — along with swimmer Coleman Allen — as Male Athlete of the Year. The honour stemmed from a 2014 campaign that not only saw him produce stats out of a video game, but also help his team to an NAIA West Championship. The number that stood out the most was the one tiniest one – a miniscule 0.46 ERA that broke the school’s previous record held by Jeff Francis. The 6-foot-5 lefty also struck out 75 batters in 78 2/3 innings, allowing just seven extra-base hits and posting a WHIP of 0.98.
“We’re really proud of Conor,” said UBC head coach Terry McKaig. “He put in a lot of hard work over his five years here at UBC, and that season he had last year was probably the most dominant season we’ve ever had of a pitcher on the mound – which is saying something since given that Jeff Francis,Brooks McNiven,Corey Stuart and guys like that have been through the program. It was an incredible year for him, so I was really proud of him to have won that award.”
The breakout performance stemmed from a confidence that grew gradually over his time in the T-Bird blue and gold. Lillis-White had often struggled with his command, walking 20 batters in 28 innings of work in 2013, but with a new mindset and the development of a strong breaking ball, the lefty simply dominated opposing hitters and carried the T-Birds to a conference championship.
“Independent of statistics or performance, I really felt like I improved each season – and one of the things I’ve learned in my career is that the low moments are never as low as you think and the high moments are never as high as you think,” said Lillis-White, who’s in his last season at UBC. “So for me it wasn’t so much putting up impressive statistics or setting any records, it was really establishing confidence in myself to consistently get my team a really good chance to win, which is what made it special and made me thrive in some big games.
“It’s a pretty special group and a pretty special program, and I take a of pride in our team’s success, so honestly it was just really exciting to see our team have a good year and I was just so happy to be a part of it.”
That pride extends beyond the team and across the entire nation. Lillis-White loves the travel aspect of the game – especially since it takes him and his teammates down to the US where the Canadians are still often addressed in the same manner that Whiteley was. When dominating on the mound last year he therefore wasn’t just representing and competing for UBC, but for Canada as well.
“The thing I love about UBC is that you’re not only playing for the university and the province, but it’s really a national deal. I know I can speak for every guy on the team when we say we take a lot of pride in being able to represent Canada.
“Every time you put the jersey on you get a chance to represent Canada in the United States. And obviously the Canadian baseball community is pretty tightly knit, and any chance to represent that at UBC, along with every other organization you’ve ever played for and the history or the program itself … I really don’t take for granted.”
Finding a way to improve on last year’s ERA was a near-impossible feat, but Lillis-White has still managed to find ways to improve his game. He’s increased his strikeout percentage by fanning 84 over his 72 1/3 innings pitched so far this season, and sports a solid 2.99 ERA and 8-2 record on the year.
He remains the ace of the T-Bird staff, and after a bit of a slow start he’s rounded into form; the lefty has gone at least seven innings in each of his last seven starts, and has allowed just three earned runs over his last 29 2/3 innings. He also now serves as a veteran presence to the younger hurlers, passing on the wisdom he learned from guys like former teammate and roommate Miles Verweel.
As for the future, Lillis-White is still pursuing his goal of playing professional baseball. While he’s not putting all his eggs in that basket since he acknowledges that a number of factors play into whether that happens or not, he’ll tackle his after-baseball endeavors “after someone pulls the jersey off of [his] back.” As for what those endeavors may be, the history and psychology student is contemplating a Masters of Journalism degree and pursuing sports writing.
Yet the main focus remains on his work while wearing the UBC jersey. With a 14-4 record after this past weekend of play, the T-Birds look to finish atop the conference standings and earn the right to defend their NAIA West title on home turf. After that, the goal is a berth at the NAIA World Series, where they hope to advance past the opening round for the first time since 2006.
All the while, Lillis-White will be representing everything that the UBC jersey stands for – and the Bus Phillips Memorial Trophy is just the latest example that others are taking notice of what he’s doing.
“It was a tremendous honour and very humbling to read the names of people who have won that in the past,” he said. “It’s a baseball program I’m very proud of, and any chance I’m able to represent the baseball program on the athletic department’s stage is something that I don’t take lightly.”