MONTROSE — The anticipation of the fall season – and then the lights, practices, wins and players – are what Montrose High School coach and educator Eric Handke will miss the most about his time in Montrose. For the past decade, Handke has given his all to a football program that has earned the Indians kudos as a top program in Colorado Class 4A.
Now the team's defensive coordinator is leaving to take on his dream role as head coach for the Salida Spartans.
Handke, who will coach the 1A Spartans next season, described the move as what he’s been looking for, both professionally, and for his family.
For the past eight seasons, Handke and MHS Head Coach Todd Casebier have succeeded in transforming the Indians into a source of enormous community pride. Five out of the last eight seasons, their team has won the Southwestern League Title, appearing in the playoffs each of those years.
"Eric has been a huge part of our success in Montrose, and we’re really gonna miss him," Casebier said.
Speaking from personal experience, Casebier said the measure of a head coach’s success comes mostly from the hard work of assistant coaches and staff.
"He is a tireless worker," Casebeir said, of Handke.
Casebeir said Handke announced his decision last week, delivering a personal message to the players.
"It was a hard decision. I have been in Montrose for now, and we kept trying to find a reason to say no,” he said. But the decision to move “just seemed to line up, and we said, ‘Let's do it.’"
Handke’s wife Stephanie’s family lives in close to Salida, in Alamosa.
Handke said he enjoys the outdoors in that part of the state, from fishing to rafting to skinning, with his wife and their sons, 2-year-old Jakob and 4-year-old Trevyr.
"For me, that's where I kinda of wanted to be,” he said of the region. Then the right job offer came along, as well. “I want to be a head coach in a smaller school, and I really like the size of the school," said Handke, who will also teach physical education and social studies.
Reminiscing about their time on the field, Handke and Casebeir remembered the Indians’ 24-6 thumping of rival Grand Junction at Stocker Stadium in 2006 that captured the team's first of four straight SWL titles. And the time the Indians beat defending champions Wheat Ridge on the Front Range, in overtime.
"It was a quest for both of us to get that done," Casebier said of the Grand Junction win. "I remember that was really special.
"It was an excellent performance by Eric and our staff."
Handke pronounced that win over Junction just one in a long line of special moments he will always cherish, but said his real treasure is the gained football knowledge he will take from Montrose and apply in Salida.
"It's going to look a lot like Montrose in a lot of ways and that's a big compliment to Todd," Handke said. "The thing I take most from Todd is he was never afraid to go get the win and go for it on fourth and one. He was a tough competitor and always played to win and was always prepared."
Senior Blake Alexander, a team captain and member of the Indian's defensive unit, said he will miss his time playing under Handke.
"Coach Handke is a great coach and man,” Alexander said. “I learned more football from him than any other coach. I will miss him."
When the school year ends and the Handke family puts down new roots in Salida, the fall season will approach fast, like it always does, and for the freshman head coach with a community behind him, the Spartans will enter 2013 with new focus.
"I'll miss all the little things,” Handke said, like “sitting down with the staff and meeting before practice, feeling of game night…everything.”
He expressed confidence in the team he’s worked with from the ground up. “I know,” he said, they’ll be “a real solid team, next year."