Matt Hicks knew where he’d stashed his Monticello apparel and he was able to dust it off for the first time in awhile Thursday night for a family photo.
“I’ve had that gear in storage for seven years,” Hicks said.
Hicks, a former Monticello assistant under Brud Bicknell and Rodney Redd, is headed back to the Mustangs’ fold after four years revitalizing Nelson County’s program. He becomes the Mustangs’ fifth head football coach, taking over after Jeff Lloyd retired earlier this school year.
“Monticello just feels like home, my family and i have never lived more than 10 minutes away from the school,” Hicks said. “I’m excited to be back. This was a dream and a goal that I’ve been working on for quite a while.”
In addition to working as an assistant at Monticello early in his coaching career, Hicks was a part of Albemarle’s southern feeder pattern as an elementary school teacher in two elementary schools — Yancey and Stone Robinson — whose students matriculated to Monticello. He also served as Monticello’s head lacrosse coach and contributed to the basketball program during his stint at there. After working for the Mustangs, he headed to Virginia State University for a year as an assistant coach, then returned to be an assistant at Albemarle under Brandon Isaiah before taking the head job at Nelson County. Isaiah was thrilled for Hicks, who he’s coached alongside at both MHS and Albemarle.
“I am excited for Matt and what this opportunity means to him,” Isaiah said. “MHS was a place where he was able to learn and grow as a coach. Being able to come home will mean a lot to Matt. He is a great dude who will pour his heart into that program and community. I am excited to watch him do great things for the MHS community and the Jefferson District.”
Isaiah wasn’t the only Jefferson District coach Hicks heard from either. He’d coached with Fluvanna’s Mike Morris at the VHSCA all-star game and has competed against Charlottesville’s Eric Sherry in 7v7 events over the last few years.
“I’ve gotten texts from a bunch of JD coaches in the last six hours,” Hicks said. “There’s a really awesome coaching fraternity here in the JD and I’m excited to be a part of that fraternity.”
He takes over a Monticello program that went 2-8 in 2019 but returns standout quarterback Malachi Fields who led a varsity roster dominated by underclassmen including several freshman. He also inherits a potential staff that he has some familiarity with and that has several experienced coaches like Joe Weaver (who has served as the interim coach), Steve Ivory and William Trent as well as members who have returned to the fold too after playing for Bicknell like Jake Miles and Tucker Tapscott.
When Hicks took over at Nelson, the Governors had won only three games in the four seasons preceding his arrival. Hicks went 0-10 in first year while laying the foundation for future success. The Governors went 3-7 in year two. A step back in 2018 wins-wise at 2-8 set the stage for a strong 2019 where Nelson went 4-6, just missed the playoffs and picked up its first Dogwood District win in seven years.
“There’s so much I was able to learn in my time at Nelson,” Hicks said. “It was a real special time in my life and they’re a great group of people.”
He learned pretty quickly at Nelson that there weren’t any short cuts and that he had to build slowly, and he did just that around departing senior Brice Wilson (headed to Hampden Sydney) and quarterback George Brown at the skill spots as well as guys like linebacker/offensive lineman James Johnson who gave the Governors a foundational player on both sides of the ball. That process made meeting with his squad at Nelson County Thursday a difficult task.
“You have to invest in your players, making sure they know that you care about them, that you want what’s best for them,” Hicks said. “I told them when I met with them as a team that that’s the toughest thing I’ve had to do professionally. We’ve been a big part of each other’s life for quite a while. They’ve got a very special group of players coming back and there’s an amazing youth program. There are so many positives at Nelson.“
Taking the Monticello job allowed Hicks to follow through too on one of his own central tenets. As he pointed out, he lives near Monticello in Charlottesville and drove each day to Nelson County for the last four years. With two young kids, that’s a lot of time in the car, away from family.
“Monticello really, truly is home for me,” Hicks said. “I talk to my players about how family needs to be one of the top priorities in your life and I wanted to make sure I was honoring that.”
Hicks has this kind of manic energy, constantly on the move, constantly thinking about what’s next and how he can help his program get better. He found some similarly passionate individuals in Monticello’s administration, particularly principal Rick Vrhovac and athletic director Matt Peaman.
“I really enjoyed meeting with (Vrhovac), that was an awesome interview format, I’d never been in an interview where — I consider myself a pretty energetic person — you have someone bringing that same energy, and it is great to have a person bringing that same energy and passion,” Hicks said. “(In Pearman) you see someone who’s really passionate about athletics at Monticello. He wants to empower a coach and see us return back to that elite status.”
That process starts now, and luckily for Monticello, Hicks already has some gear and a formative experience at Nelson to give him a jump start on getting the job done.