By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
In the world of coaching in Montana, the chance to move up the coaching ladder doesn't come around every year. Sometimes it doesn't come around for a decade.
For Willie Schlepp this was one opportunity that he just couldn't pass up.
After six very successful years as the head boys basketball coach for the Chester Coyotes, Schlepp has decided to leave the Hi-Line and head south, accepting the head coaching position at Helena High.
"It was an opportunity to move up professionally through the coaching ranks and I had to take it," Schlepp said on Thursday as he still coached members of his Chester squad in the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team camp.
"Commitment is a big word with me," he said. "And I am going to finish up the next four weeks with these kids like I had planned as well as our basketball camp. I made a commitment to them and I am going to keep it."
Schlepp officially accepted the job on Tuesday and told his players shortly thereafter It was something he hasn't done before in his six year coaching career at Chester.
"That's one of the toughest things I've ever had to do," he admitted "I've been there six years and established a lot of good relationships with people. It was tough to say goodbye.
"The players were the first people I told along with my family because they are the most important people in my life."
During his tenure in Chester, Schlepp had immense success as the head boys coach. He took over in the 1998-1999 season after spending two years as an assistant coach under Tim Walker for the Northern men and in his first year helped lead Chester on a magical season.
Led by standouts Jeff Graham, Casey Fitzsimmons and Jared Christenot, the Coyotes rolled to an undefeated regular season, a 10C title, a second place at the Northern C Divisional and an appearance in the Class C state championship game against rival KG.
The Coyotes fell to KG in the championship thanks to a scintillating 36 point performance by Jake Stuart. Chester finished that season 25-2 with both losses coming to KG in the divisional and state title game.
Schlepp and the Coyotes never got back to the title game, but still had great success. Chester was 88-48 in his tenure. He was twice named District 10C coach of the year, in 1998 and 2001.
This past season, Schlepp's squad finished with a 12-11 record, placing third at the District 10C tourney. Chester was knocked out in the challenge game by a Dutton-Brady squad that went on finish third in the Class C State Tournament.
The Coyotes lost a few players from last year's team, but were still returning a pretty good nucleus of players. Regardless of what was coming back, leaving wasn't easy for Schlepp or his players.
"I think they will understand," he said. "Maybe not right now, but definitely in the future. It's a good opportunity for me and my family It has nothing to do with them or who was returning. This is just something I couldn't pass up."
Besides coaching the boys, Schlepp has also been an assistant coach for the girls programs for four years. He helped guide the 2001 Coyote girls to a 26-0 and a Class C state title.
Besides basketball, Schlepp coached junior high football for two years, co-coached the track team this year and was boys activities director this past year.
Now he moves to a place where his only focus will be teaching business education and coaching basketball.
"It'll be nice not to have so many irons in the fire," Schlepp said. "I really liked coaching the other sports, but this is a chance for me to just focus on establishing the boys program. I just have to worry about teaching and coaching."
Schlepp fills the vacancy left by longtime coach Steve Keller, who resigned to be a voluntary assistant coach at Carroll College.
Keller was one of the more successful high school coaches in Montana and a fixture at Helena High, coaching both boys and girls basketball. In 19 years, he assembled a 610-190 record, while winning six girls state titles and placing in the top four with the boys seven times.
"I definitely have some big shoes to fill," Schlepp said. "Helena High has a great basketball tradition and I am just looking to carry it into the future. Steve was a highly successful coach and I'd be lying if I was saying I wasn't at least a little intimidated, but someone had to take it over. Hopefully, success breeds success and we continue to build on what Steve started."
It's a challenge that Schlepp is definitely looking forward to.
"With six years at Chester and two at Northern, I feel pretty experience even though I'm still a young guy," he said. "I'm excited about starting from fresh with these kids. With a new coach, everybody starts over and everyone is equal in my eyes. Hopefully that leads to some competition for some spots, which will only make us better."