MADISON — There might not be an athlete in the state with more going on than Hand’s Phoenix Billings?
The starting shortstop, who orally committed to UConn as a junior this past Fall, also doubles as the quarterback for the Tigers’ football team.
“In the leadership sense, there is a similarity (between the two sports), being sort of the guy that people are looking to in the huddle or out on the field,” Billings said. “There’s a little more of a spotlight on you, more plays to make, but that is something that I like to embrace, that is something that I enjoy.”
Being the focal point of every opponent’s plan in both sports is something that was new to Billings this year, but something he relished.
“You definitely feel the difference, from last year being a sophomore, and going into the year no one knew who I was at all and I was batting before Eddy (Sweeney), so it was a nice little hiding spot for me,” he said. “Everyone was looking at Eddy and Cam (Fitzgerald) last year, so it was different coming into this year, being more of the guy that they are looking for. It’s a fun challenge, it’s fun to try to be the guy that everyone wants to get out. It puts more pressure on myself, which is what I like to do.”
On the diamond, he has made dazzling plays, hit tape measure home runs and has helped turn the Tigers program into a perennial power that has SCC and state championship aspirations. On the gridiron, he stepped in as a sophomore — two seasons ago — and returned the Tigers to one of the elite programs in the state, winning back-to-back Class L state titles, while being named to the Register/GameTimeCT All-State first team.
“What can’t he do? He can do everything. I might be a better quarterback than Phoenix,” baseball and football teammate Julian Banerji, said with a laugh. “He’s pretty amazing. Coming in as a sophomore, taking over a (football) team that was 2-8 the year before with a lot of instability at the quarterback position and leading us to a state championship. That’s pretty incredible. Then coming back his junior year and just being one of the best players overall in the state — not even his position, just overall — I mean stud. Then (in baseball) the (No.) three hitter, UConn commit shortstop… what do you say?”
There isn’t much to say, especially when you look at what he has accomplished so far.
He is currently batting .308, with two home runs, 11 RBIs and five stolen bases, helping lead the Tigers to a 10-3 record. They are a mainstay in the top 10 poll and a top pick to win the Class L baseball title.
This past fall the junior led an offense that scored 79 touchdowns, scoring a school-record 653 points, while accounting for 2,318 yards of total offense and scoring 34 total touchdowns. In his two years as the Tigers’ starting quarterback the team is 25-1.
“I have never had an athlete, especially at his age, that has had as much on his plate as he is trying to balance right now,” Hand baseball coach Travis LaPointe said. “He is a junior in high school, so he is still learning how to handle all of this. He has a lot of different challenges that quite honestly I never had to deal with.
“It feels like all eyes are on him sometimes. I just can’t imagine that is very easy for a high school player, but he does it with such poise. I’m just so impressed with him going through his day-to-day business. He is a dynamic, dynamic athlete and he is fun to watch.”
It’s not just his play on the field that has made Billings a household name throughout the state.
“That type of leadership, coupled with that type of athleticism, yeah that’s pretty rare,” Hand football coach Dave Mastroianni said “I might only see that once, I certainly hope not as a coach, but I may only see it one time.”
Helping resurrect the football program was just part one of what Billings wants to accomplish during his time in Madison. Helping the baseball program reach a state final, which they never have done, or win an SCC title, which is something that has alluded them as well is next on his list.
“It takes a group of guys that are together. There is no confusion on what you want to do, no confusion on what type of team we want to be,” he said. “That’s sort of a weight on our backs. We want to get there and win a championship, whether it’s the SCC or the state championship.”
It’s the experiences that Billings has learned on the football field that he has brought to the baseball field, to try to lead the Tigers to the top.
“We didn’t take any game lightly,” he said of the football season. “We treated every game like it was the biggest game on our schedule and it paid off. That’s what we really just want to do here, treat every game like it’s the biggest game.”
After last season, where Hand lost in the SCC baseball championship game and bowed out of the Class L playoffs in the second round, Billings and Banerji are attempting to bring that winning mentality to the diamond.
“That prepared us and showed us what we needed to do to get to that stage in baseball,” Banerji said. “This year we are trying to bring along the guys with us and show them what it takes to really be a successful championship caliber program.
“We know we have it in us, we just need to learn how to succeed at the highest level.”
The Tigers might not win any championships this spring, but with Billings leading the way, they are always going to be in the conversation.
“He brings just an understanding of how to win,” LaPointe said. “There is just a certain confidence that comes when he walks into the batter’s box, or when a ball is hit to him, or even when he goes out to the mound and goes to talk to our pitcher, when our pitcher might be unsettled. You just know that is going to resonate and he is going to be able to carry a message differently than even a coach might, just because he can relate as a peer probably better.
“You can’t measure it and it’s just really special.”