After 11 very successful seasons at the helm, during which Belgrade High School’s softball program gradually became a Class A power, Eddy Holgate has stepped down as head coach.
Holgate submitted his resignation last month, and the Belgrade School Board accepted it Monday night.
It was an unexpected move by the longtime coach, and caught many off guard, including Belgrade Athletic Director Rick Phillips.
“It was a big surprise,” Phillips said Wednesday. “He eluded that the time was coming. But he didn’t give me any indication that it was going to happen right away, like this year.”
It was even more surprising considering the success the Panthers have had the past four years — a stretch in which the program won four straight conference titles and brought home four trophies from the State A tournament.
But the long hours Holgate gave to the high school team was valuable time spent away from his three children. And at ages in which they’ve all become very active in their own sports, he was missing more family events than wanted.
“I miss a lot of the kid’s games and stuff. It gets tough and they’re getting older,” said Holgate. “I’ve got three kids. Cal’s 12, Kaden’s eight, and my daughter Camden is four. They’re getting older and I guess I just don’t want to look back and say geez I missed out on watching them play.”
Holgate’s boys both play baseball on different teams — Kaden in the Minors and Cal in the Majors. Their games are often in direct conflict with Belgrade High softball games, something Holgate is no longer willing to sacrifice.
“He made the right decision. Family’s got to come first,” said Phillips. “The kids are very important to him and being able to work with (and watch) them is awesome and the right time. Unfortunately, we (Belgrade High softball) become the backseat to that. But that’s expected.”
Holgate said he wouldn’t rule out coaching again if the right opportunity presented itself down the road.
“(But) for now, I’m gonna watch the kids play and be Dad more than anything right now,” he said.
Belgrade High softball began as a junior varsity program in 1998, then was coached by Char Anderson during its first two varsity seasons from 1999-2000. The Panthers won just seven of 34 varsity games during that stretch.
Holgate took over in 2001 and the Panthers equaled their wins total for the two previous years with a 7-15 campaign. It was just one of three losing seasons Belgrade had during his tenure.
The Panthers reached the state tournament for the first time in 2003, then qualified again in eight of the next nine years. And over the past four years, Belgrade won four straight conference titles — two in the Eastern A conference and two more in the Central A after the leagues were realigned in 2010.
Holgate’s teams won an impressive 45 of 46 conference games during that stretch, and were unbeaten in league play in 2008, 2010 and 2011. The Panthers reached the State A championship game in 2010, finishing as the runnerup to Polson, and also had fourth (2008) and third (2009, 2011) place finishes at state.
Belgrade had winning seasons seven times under Holgate, and won 19 or more games in a season five times. The Panthers enjoyed back-to-back 22-4 campaigns in 2009 and 2010, and finished with a 21-5-1 mark this year.
Holgate and his players had hoped to get over the hump and win a state title during the 2011 campaign. It didn’t pan out, but he’s still comfortable about stepping away at this time.
“I feel good about this, knowing where the program is. I tell you what, the program is not in shambles. Whoever inherits the program, I think they take it right over and we don’t miss a beat,” said Holgate, who finished with a 169-95-3 coaching record at Belgrade. “Maybe I’ll look back and regret it. But winning four conference titles, I think we keep winning them. And I think eventually we’re going to win a state title. It’s going to happen. I would have liked to have gone out that way. Ultimately that was the goal.”
Holgate noted that the team returns one of the top pitchers in the state (senior Justine Taylor) as well as a young but talented squad. He also pointed out that Belgrade boasts a strong feeder program, evidenced by last weekend’s ASA state tournament in Great Falls. The U12 Belgrade Wolfpack placed third, while the U10 squad was fifth.
While a state championship eluded Holgate as Belgrade’s coach, he noted many fond memories. They include a special moment this season when lights illuminated Field 1 (the varsity field) for the first time ever at the steadily improving Belgrade Softball Complex on senior-parent night in late May.
“One of the last things I wanted to see watching this field develop, along with everything else, was the lights. I wanted to watch our seniors play under the lights,” said Holgate. “And I saw that this year. The crowd was absolutely amazing. It was an awesome night. And even then, I took it all in because I knew (I was done).”
In addition to softball, Holgate has coached his own kids as well as middle school basketball and football. He’s also the head of the school district’s drivers education program. With so much on his plate from school year to school year, Holgate noted he relied heavily on his assistant coaches over the years to conduct meetings and open gyms.
“I had a lot of great assistant coaches that helped out with open gyms. My volunteer coaches, Dave Lanzendorf and Randy Cygan, and Justin (Taylor) my assistant coach, they all helped a ton with the open gyms through the years. It’s been a nice thing to have,” he said. “I think they know it’s been tough. That’s the nice thing about those guys, and even my other assistant coaches dating back to the very beginning, they helped out with the open gyms.”
Phillips said he’d like to have Holgate’s replacement hired by Thanksgiving and before the softball program begins off-season work outs over the winter. The position will be listed both in and out of the district.
“I think it’s going to be a pretty high interest job because the of the program’s stability and the way he’s built it over his 11 years with the feeder program and everything,” said Phillips. “And just looking at what happened this summer with all of our young kids winning the tournament we had here. And our younger kids went up to Great Falls and were successful up there. So the program is on very solid foundation, and the person that comes in is going to walk right into a program that is going to be very successful for many, many years.”