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Baker native Jace Schillinger 'blessed' with opportunity to lead Sidney football program

Jace Schillinger
Posted at 5:41 PM, Apr 18, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-18 22:13:50-04

MISSOULA — The Schillinger name carries a lot of weight on the football field in eastern Montana.

Don Schillinger won more than 300 games and six Class B state championships in 37 years as the head football coach at Baker High School. Now, his nephew Jace is set to bring "coach Schillinger" back to the high school gridiron as the head coach at Sidney High School.

"I understand it with my dad and my uncle ... being coaches over there that it is known, the name and stuff like that, but I try not to think too much about it," said Jace Schillinger, whose dad, Jim, coached track and field (and whose brother Shann is the head football coach at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D.).

"The expectations that we have will be ones we put on ourselves, and I hope that they're realistic right away. It's going to take some time and things like that, but I really do hope over time that we'll really make a change in the culture of the football program, which then hopefully makes a change in the culture of the school."

Sidney activities director Chris Lee announced Schillinger's hiring, pending final board approval, on Thursday.

"We are very excited to welcome coach Schillinger and his family to Sidney," Lee said. "His coaching resume, vast experience and passion for the game make him the ideal fit to lead our football program. We are looking forward to the positive and lasting impact he will have in the storied history of Sidney Eagle football."

Schillinger will take over a Sidney program that has had only two head coaches since 1981: Mike Gear, who led the Eagles to a dynasty of seven consecutive Class A state championships from 1987 to 1993, and Roger Merritt, who took over from Gear in 2011 and resigned in January of this year.

Guy Melby was also a longtime assistant football coach and still leads Sidney's vaunted wrestling program.

"I've known Roger and Guy for a long time, I've met coach Gear once or twice, and have a ton of respect for each," Schillinger said. "Each one of them, they're kind of synonymous with Sidney athletics, and they've been around since Sidney won seven in a row. I mean, they've won a lot of games ... and Guy's obviously won a lot of wrestling championships.

"I just have the utmost respect for all of them and really appreciate what they've done for the school, and hopefully we can continue to carry on that tradition on the football field this year."

Schillinger said he intends to "pick all their brains" and he would be "foolish" not to get their coaching insight. He'll bring plenty of his own experience to the job, though.

After winning the 1999 Class B state title while playing for his uncle and graduating from Baker in 2000, Schillinger played college football at Dickinson State in North Dakota. He graduated from DSU in 2005 and immediately started his coaching career.

He was the head track coach and an assistant coach on the basketball and football staffs at Billings Central in 2005-06. He then went back to Dickinson State to coach the Blue Hawks' defensive line in football and serve as an assistant track coach from 2006-08.

Schillinger returned to the high school gridiron as the head coach at Livingston in 2008-09 before getting back into the college coaching ranks. He was the running backs coach at the University of North Dakota (2009-11), the offensive coordinator and head track coach at Dickinson State (2015-16) and the tight ends coach at the University of Montana (2017-20).

He took a few years off from coaching and is currently in his first — and ultimately only — season as the head track and field coach at Sentinel High School in Missoula.

"One thing I've kind of found out through coaching track this year is how much I missed coaching kids, the camaraderie that you build with kids, the relationships that you build with kids and coaches and the school administration and stuff like that," Schillinger said. "I found out that's really one of the things I really miss a lot about coaching."

Since leaving the Grizzlies' coaching staff, Schillinger has been a sales representative at BSN Sports, a job he'll continue to work while coaching in Sidney. He said he and his family — wife Amie and kids Lola, Grady and Vaida — will likely make the move from Missoula to Sidney in late June.

"To be honest, they were a little more keen about it before I was," Schillinger said. "The whole family was really excited. My kids were excited because they have cousins that are over there, and they're looking forward to being back closer to their family."

Amie is also a Baker native, and her parents still live there. Jace's parents now live in Circle.

Moving closer to family was one of the primary motivations to move back to eastern Montana, but it's still bittersweet for Schillinger to leave Missoula, the community in which he's lived the longest in his adult life.

Since his hiring was announced Thursday morning, Schillinger said he's received congratulatory text messages throughout the day.

"It's humbling because on the Sidney end of it, they're really looking forward to having us over there, which excites me, and I'm excited for my kids to have that," he said. "And then over here, it's also humbling because you have people that care about you and are kind of sad to see you leave.

"I've been honored my whole life, I've just been lucky to be able to have such good people and good friends and things like that and then good opportunities. I was blessed with one here at the University of Montana, and I'm blessed with another one. I've just been really lucky."