The heart of the Storm: Manager Neil Hylla returns to dugout for South Central after heart attack
Hylla is heavily involved in Gregory baseball at all ages
The story of baseball in Gregory is one that’s on the rise.
And Neil Hylla is a major reason why.
The Gregory County high school baseball team made the Class B state tournament for the first time in May, the community’s teener baseball programs are consistently strong each year, and the local amateur team, the South Central Storm, has a young core of talent.
But ask the players for those teams, and they'll all express their gratitude that they can still be in the dugout with Hylla. The local coach who has a major impact on baseball in the region suffered a heart attack on Mother’s Day and needed triple-bypass surgery.
“I have a full plate when it comes to baseball, but I really like being around these kids and these teams,” Hylla said. “I like it more than the kids do, I know I do.”
“To be honest, we really needed Neil. And not having him for a while this season really showed how much he meant to us,” said Storm player Blake Hoffmann. “He does a lot for this community and for this team. We wouldn't be here without him.”
Amateur baseball, in particular, is part of Hylla’s story. He grew up in the heart of amateur baseball country in central Minnesota, playing for the Opole Bears at age 16 in a village about 25 miles northwest of St. Cloud. Like many of the best amateur baseball towns in the state, it consists of little more than a ballpark, a church and its cemetery, a bar and a handful of houses.
“Right away, I learned a lot and I learned what it's like to play for a town team where every player loves being there and loves the game,” he said.
He later moved to South Dakota, first to Miller to help get baseball and softball going, and then to Gregory in 2016, where he dove into coaching baseball, starting with the youth teams.
Over the past five years, that’s included being the head coach of the Gregory County high school team in the spring, assisting with teener baseball coaching in a pair of age groups and managing the Storm, when the team’s young players asked him to coach.
“To be honest, we needed some leadership from someone like Neil,” Hoffmann said. “We’re a bunch of young guys and he could straighten us out.”
Hylla said he was fortunate to survive the heart attack, given that his arteries had near 100 percent blockages. Doctors told him that he likely wouldn’t have survived if not for his other passion that allows him to get a decent workout: guiding hunters and being outdoors.
“It was scary,” said Hylla’s son, Brandon McKnight, who plays for the Storm. “It’s something that you never want to see someone you care about go through.”
The heart attack came as the high school team was approaching the postseason. Once Hylla got out of the hospital, he couldn’t stay away, returning to the dugout for Gregory County’s regional round games.
“I was trying to take it easy, coaching first base and trying to not get too excited,” Hylla said. “I had several of my family members pretty nervous about my blood pressure but my kids played well, so that made it easy.”
Once the high school playoffs concluded, Hylla took time away from amateur baseball, returning to manage the Storm around midseason. Hylla and the Storm finished the season 12-10, made the District 3B championship for the first time in team history, and reached their third straight Class B state amateur tournament.
The success stands in stark contrast to the tough years South Central had. In the four prior seasons from 2015 to 2018, the Storm were 10-48 in Pony Hills League play.
“A few years ago, we were one of those teams that everyone loved to play because they knew they could beat us easily,” Hoffmann said. “Now we’re not one of those teams and we’re getting to the state tournament, and now the goal is to take it even further.”
Hylla said he’s encouraged by the excitement around baseball in the Gregory area at all age levels, with young talent coming of age.
“Our team is a good group of guys, and Neil really provides the leadership that we need and he’s always putting in the game for baseball in our community,” McKnight said. “It’s an exciting time to see it all start to take off.”
With the state tournament benchmark now repeatedly reached, Hylla said the goal is now to show that the squad will develop into a powerhouse club in the Pony Hills League and around the state.
“We know what we need to do to be competitive. Now it’s about developing and we want to be the next big team, and the one that everyone has to beat if they’re going to accomplish something,” Hylla said.
Personally, now about three months on from his life-altering heart attack, Hylla said he’s feeling as good as ever.
“I feel 10 years younger,” he said. “It was a minor setback but I’m grateful and I’m lucky.”