116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
WALKER — It’s the unofficial players’ lounge of North Linn High School boys’ athletics.
The basement of Mike and Jaci Hilmer’s home in Walker has about everything when it comes to recreational activities. There’s billiards, ping pong, a poker table, a shuffleboard table.
You’ve got a video-game system or two. Lots of couches and chairs to sit on and relax.
“And about 19 TVs, so they can play their video games and watch a game at the same time,” Jaci Hilmer said.
It has been THE place to be for North Linn kids after their games, whether it be football, basketball, wrestling or baseball. That’s all ages, too, from freshmen to seniors.
Sure is going to be an adjustment for everyone once the fall rolls around, and it comes to an end.
Austin Hilmer will be an hour and a half away at college beginning in late August. He’ll be attending Upper Iowa University in Fayette, where he’ll play basketball.
“The hardest part will be none of the other kids will be around here,” Mike Hilmer said. “There won’t be 22 kids or so downstairs ... Might have to invite them over anyway.”
Older brother, Jake Hilmer, already is a starting guard for the Peacocks. He was The Gazette’s 2019 Male Athlete of the Year.
Austin is the recipient of The Gazette’s 2022 Male Athlete of the Year honor. They’re the first brothers to be selected, the second pair of siblings from North Linn to win, following Nicole and Ryan Miller.
So much talent from such a small, rural community. A very tight small, rural community.
“It’ll be quiet this (school) year,” Jaci Hilmer said. “That’s probably what I’ll miss the most. All the other kids being around. It’ll start over again with her generation.”
A close family bond
Jaci nodded toward 5-year-old daughter, Jori, standing near the kitchen table in the Hilmer home. Jori Hilmer was asked if she’ll miss her brother when he leaves in late August.
She shyly smiled and shook her head no. A little fib there.
“It’s kind of hard sometimes because I’m doing high-school things, and I don’t see her as much as I’d like,” Austin Hilmer said. “But when I do get to be home and play with her and stuff, it’s fun. We have a good bond.”
All the Hilmers do, actually.
It couldn’t have always been easy playing basketball for his father, let alone being Jake’s little brother, but Austin handled everything with aplomb. He won 16 varsity letters at North Linn: five in baseball, four in basketball and football and three in track and field.
The 2020 track season was canceled by the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, otherwise it’d have been 17 letters.
“Obviously, I’m very proud of him,” Jake Hilmer said. “What he did, it didn’t surprise me. I could see it coming. He was very determined. He never was trying to live up to me. He knew what he wanted to do, and he did a good job of separating that ... He’s come such a long ways.”
The brothers share a bedroom in the aforementioned uber-popular Hilmer basement. They have bunk beds, believe it or not.
Austin has to climb to the top every night to sleep. Seniority rules, you know.
“A lot of people would say that would be tough, but, for me, I just tried to use it as an advantage,” he said of following in his brother’s footsteps. “I got to see him play through his high-school career, and it helped me see how it was going and then just learn from that. Getting to the point where I wasn’t him, and I didn’t have to live up to anything. Just do what I did, not think about his career and just worry about mine. That helped me a lot.”
Mom, dad and others say their boys are alike in many ways, especially when it comes to their love of sports and their respective competitive natures.
“We walk alike, talk alike, are very similar,” Austin said.
Yet they’re very different in some respects as well.
“You know how Austin is feeling at any moment at any time,” Jaci said. “For good or bad.”
“That’s not just in sports,” Mike Hilmer said.
“He’s a very emotional athlete. Ups and downs,” said North Linn baseball coach and assistant basketball coach Travis Griffith. “But it drives him the whole time. Whether something good or bad happens, Austin is going to be emotional about it, and I think that’s what makes him great. He just doesn’t stop.”
That wear-your-emotions-on-your-sleeve thing comes from dad, everyone agrees, and makes him a target at times. A recent baseball game against a fellow Tri-Rivers Conference school apparently got so out of hand when it came to the chirping Hilmer received from the opposing team, umpires had to step in and put it to an end.
“Overall, it’s funny because other schools don’t like him and they talk (crap) to him and everything,” said North Linn head football and head track and field coach Jared Collum. “But he’s a super nice kid, so humble. I mean, he’ll talk a little bit during a game, but it’s funny to me how much other schools don’t like him. We don’t really care.”
“I think Austin gets more than Jake ever did,” Griffith said. “The rule of thumb was you don’t talk (crap) to Jake Hilmer because he’d get POed and crush you ... He’d internalize it and turn it on. It’s hard to talk crap to someone who doesn’t show any emotion. Whereas, Austin, you can get under his skin. He will show it when you are talking. For the most part, he’ll turn it on and make it burn, but it’s easier to talk smack to someone who will show emotion when you are doing it.”
A star for all seasons
Most certainly a lot of this just comes with the territory when you’re so successful individually and as a team. Austin is a multi-year all-stater in basketball and baseball, winning Class 1A hoops player of the year honors this past season from the Iowa Basketball Coaches Association.
He was a first-team all-state football player this past fall as a wide receiver, catching 60 passes, including 11 for touchdowns. North Linn finished the regular season unbeaten and ranked No. 3 in Class A.
The Lynx baseball team has been to the state tournament three of the last four years, including a runner-up finish in Class 1A in 2019. They’re 27-2 and ranked sixth this season, with Hilmer leading the team with a .500 batting average and 53 stolen bases.
North Linn’s basketball team was in the state championship game all four of Hilmer’s years on varsity, winning a 2A title when he was a freshman, the first kid off the bench, and the 1A title this past winter.
“I know for a fact people up here are tired of hearing about North Linn and tired of hearing about the Hilmer boys,” Griffith said. “I understand that completely.”
“We win a lot,” Collum said. “And we talk about this, too. People don’t like it when one team wins a lot of stuff. So it is what it is. The run will end, but hopefully not until I’m gone.”
While Jake Hilmer has played both basketball and baseball at Upper Iowa, Austin has decided to concentrate solely on hoops. Academically, he already has his general education classes out of the way, meaning he’ll be able to pursue and obtain a master’s degree in his four years at Fayette.
He’ll major in communications, with a sports emphasis, the plan being eventually a master’s in sports administration. The ultimate goal is to be a high school athletics director and coach, like his dad.
“I just decided that sticking to one will keep me busy enough,” Austin said. “I’ve been a (multi-sport) athlete my whole life, so just being a basketball player will be fun, I think. Maximize my potential there.”
Austin said it never was a given he’d wind up with his brother in college. It just worked out that way.
“I didn’t like the whole recruiting process, wasn’t a fan of it,” he said. “Sometimes coaches would tell you they were calling you at 1, then you’d be sitting around at 1:25 or 1:30 until they’d call. They wouldn’t call on time, and I’d hate it.
“They’d give you false hope. One coach talked to me for about 15 minutes, said he wanted to get me on a visit, offer me. Then he said ‘You’re 6-foot-2, right?’ I was like, ‘no, I’m 5-10.’ That was it. He didn’t talk to me after that day. Literally one minute, he was talking to me, then after that, he didn’t contact me again. I was like ‘All right, good talk.’”
He admits he has been doing some reminiscing lately, knowing one more loss in baseball ends his prolific prep athletics career. Not to mention the postgame gatherings in the basement.
“I’ve rewatched some games, and things like that. Basketball games from this year,” he said. “It’s crazy that it’s almost all completed.”
Meet Austin Hilmer
School: North Linn
Birthdate: May 15, 2003
Family: Parents, Mike and Jaci; brother, Jake; sister, Jori.
High school accomplishments: Picked up 16 varsity letters in four sports (five in baseball, four each in football and basketball and three in track and field). First-team all-state selection in three of them (basketball, football and baseball). A member of two state-championship basketball teams (Class 2A in 2019, Class 1A in 2022) and four teams that played in state championship games. Finished his career with 1,758 points, 703 assists and 377 steals. Holds school records in football for receptions in a season (60) and receiving yards in a season (842). North Linn’s 2021 football team finished the regular season unbeaten. In baseball, he holds the state single-season record for stolen bases (75) and has played in three state tournaments. Went into Tuesday hitting .505 this season, with 62 stolen bases. Was a multiple-time state qualifier in track and field.
College: Will play basketball at Upper Iowa University. Plans to major in communications and eventually get his master’s degree in sports administration.