Former Bobcat walk-on returns to Big Sky
Before he became head football coach for the Box Elder Bears, Jake Eldridge worked for Montana Party Rentals.
“We set up for weddings and everything so we were up in Big Sky all the time,” recalled Eldridge recently, while he prepared his team to face Lone Peak High School on Friday, Aug. 24. Eldridge said he worked events at the Yellowstone Club, but never spotted any NFL greats behind club walls.
A graduate of Helena’s Capital High and one-time walk-on for the Montana State University Bobcats, Eldridge transferred to MSU-Northern in 2003 and has remained connected to the Havre area since.
Eldridge played four years for the Lights, moving from defensive back to receiver his senior year. Then he held a series of coaching positions before stepping in by surprise as interim head coach of the NAIA school and member of the Frontier Conference.
That was 2014, when Mark Samson—Eldridge’s mentor and head coach since their days at Capital High—stepped down during fall training over the financial mismanagement of a youth camp. This year Samson took over as head coach of Great Falls High School while Eldridge found a spot at Box Elder after a coaching change at MSU-Northern put him back in the job market.
Lately, he’s been watching video of LPHS senior Kegan Babick and gathering as much intel on the Big Horns as he can. The Box Elder Bears are coming off a 1-6 season, which baptized a core of freshmen. Now sophomores, these players spent the summer in the weight room, said Coach Eldridge. And among them is Nacona Limberhand, a 5’10” 190-pound second-year player Eldridge expects to make an impact at linebacker and running back.
Coach Eldridge added, “I’m excited first and foremost for our O-line, D-line. We’ve got five kids we’re excited about up there.”
Having that many players in the trenches is a bonus for Box Elder, which plays as part of the state’s biggest class C division in football—the North—where among the 12 teams the Bears have struggled to stand out.
That’s partly because Box Elder was forced to move up from six-man to eight-man. Just three years ago, a six-man Bears team went all the way to the championship game and lost. That same group of athletes went on to win the state title in basketball for Box Elder High, which is home to around 130 students.
But when it comes to football, Coach Eldridge said that number comes with a catch.
“The crazy thing is we’re 70 percent female,” Eldridge said of Box Elder High School. “So when you really look at the numbers we’re probably more suitable for six-man.”
Box Elder Athletic Director Neal Rosette Jr. said fielding enough kids has “always been a battle” for his program.
There were 12 players on the six-man team that made it all the way to state and it made all the difference, said Rosette. The following year, the team’s success inspired 25 kids to come out for football. But that rise in enthusiasm also pushed Box Elder into the eight-man ranks.
“Box Elder has always been one of the larger class C schools, but they have been able to remain in six-man because participation was historically low,” Rosette told montanasports.com, recalling how after the move to eight-man, “The wins did not follow.”
Rosette was the coach at the time and this year he made way for Coach Eldridge to lead a team with 13 players.
“We’re building, we’re young still,” said Rosette. So much so, just days before kickoff in Big Sky, the Bears had not named their quarterback.
Still, compared to last year, when “they were freshmen and wide-eyed and they didn’t know what to think,” said Coach Eldridge, his core of sophomores are growing tougher and more savvy by the day.
Box Elder has never travelled to Gallatin County for a football game, so Rosette said, “We’re juiced for that.”
For Coach Eldridge, it’s a minor homecoming. He also worked for a time at the Rocking R Bar, before it blew up in the 2009 natural gas explosion in downtown Bozeman. Back then, the R Bar threw its Christmas party at Buck’s T-4.
Between his time with Montana Party Rentals and holiday revelry at Buck’s, it seems Eldridge has generally enjoyed himself in Big Sky. Now it’s up to the Lone Peak Big Horns to not let those good times roll.