MALTA — Jake Stuart guided Kremlin-Gildford to back-to-back Class C state boys basketball championships in 1998 and 1999, earning state tournament MVP honors each season. The 1999 Gatorade player of the year suited up for the Montana Grizzlies before transferring to Rocky Mountain College, where he had a fine career for the Battlin’ Bears.
Stuart also added to K-G’s trophy mantle in football and track. Blue Sky-Kremlin-Gildford won 6-Man state titles in 1998 and 1999, defeating Geraldine and West Yellowstone. K-G also won the boys State C track and field title in 1999, starting a streak of five consecutive state championships for the Kougars on the track.
MTN Sports recently caught up with Stuart at his home in Malta. Stuart touched on everything from the rivalries and relationships built during his playing days to his time at the University of Montana and Rocky Mountain College and to how he’s impacting the next generation of athletes on the Hi-Line.
MTN Sports: Start off with your football days, you were 6-Man when you were playing. You won two titles there, beating West Yellowstone and Geraldine. You also played against the Chester team with Jeff Graham and Casey Fitzsimmons or were they 8-Man at the time?
Jake Stuart: “Our JV, we played them in 8-Man. We played an 8-Man schedule for JV. I think we had 23, 24 kids on the roster in 6-Man. We played West Yellowstone and Geraldine, yeah.”
MTN: What do you remember from those days? The camaraderie of football, that kind of general thing.
Stuart: “Football was actually always my favorite sport. 6-Man, we get a hard time for playing 6-Man. It was actually really fun to play, a lot of running, kind of like a track meet-football blend. We had a lot of athletes through there, Blue Sky and K-G both. We would have liked to have played 8-Man, actually. We had the rivalry going with Chester. And even though they were really, really good and we probably wouldn’t have beat them, it would have been fun to try.”
MTN: Basketball, you won a pair of titles there, as well, beating Bridger, that Chester team with Graham, Fitzsimmons, Eric Kleinsasser. You also played against Mike Chavez, who is one of the better players Montana has ever seen. Just those times playing at the state tournaments, what are your fondest memories from those days?
Stuart: “I know some of those guys to this day and stay in touch with them. Like Mike Chavez, for instance, he was at Heart Butte. At that time we did a little bit of scouting. We had a really good coach, but we didn’t scout teams, I think, like after I got to college. Watching film and video, we didn’t do a lot of that. We had heard Heart Butte had a good player. Then we actually saw him at divisionals and he was really good. His name was Mike Chavez. Later, he had a pretty good career himself. We’re lucky we saw him when he was a freshman. We beat them, literally tipped a shot in at the buzzer, which is how we beat them. We probably should have lost.”
MTN: Was it your tip-in at the buzzer?
Stuart: “Yeah. My head coach at the Griz was sitting under the basket and I did not have a very good game, something mentally. The last play they called of the game I actually passed. I told our coach, ‘I don’t want the shot, I don’t know what’s going on’. So my brother took the shot and I tipped his missed shot in.”
MTN: Chavez being a freshman at the time, did he resemble a freshman by the way he played by any means?
Stuart: “No. No, he was really good. We didn’t really have much of an answer for him. We’re lucky he was a freshman. He was a team guy. He probably could have done more that year, but he was playing with a bunch of seniors. So we were really fortunate to win that game. It was the first game at divisionals. Then we played Belt. Belt had a really good team that year. Jake Larsen, Heath Wall, they were talented. We beat them in the semis. Then Chester, who had beat us twice that year, beat us in Chester and K-G by about 10 each game, we played them and beat them in overtime.”
MTN: What was it like battling with those guys in the regular season, tournaments, the state tournament?
Stuart: “It was actually even more than that. Jared Christenot, Fitzsimmons, Kleinsasser, we played baseball against each other growing up. Football, JV, we all went to camps together. They were only 30 miles away, we knew them well. It was a rivalry. They were definitely a group of guys that I did not want to lose to in a state tourney game, because they’re friends of mine now and I like having that little bit of edge on them.”
MTN: You went to play collegiately at Montana, at least for a year or two. What was your time like there?
Stuart: “It was great. It was an intro to Division I basketball. I was out of my league. I was a multi-sport athlete. The University of Montana, you almost need to be ready to play a certain position when you get there, and I wasn’t. The first year was a struggle trying to find my way around campus, trying to meet people. Then in basketball, I was definitely for a ‘2’ position, which is what I was playing, I was behind. Larry Krystkowiak was one of the coaches, Pryor Orser, who’s at the Colorado School of Mines, and they were both very brash about getting better. And so I was kind of forced to improve. Redshirt year, I didn’t have much fun. It was a long year. I went home a lot, didn’t like being there. The next year I started to fit in better, made some friends and enjoyed it. But my second year there is when I left, after my second year. It was a tough decision, but I just didn’t see myself really making an impact there. I felt like I could have maybe been a role player at some point, but I missed playing at the end of games and having an impact on the game. Actually, Pryor Orser, in a really blunt way, kind of told me, ‘Why are you in college playing basketball to sit on the bench?’ He kind of was a big part of talking me into transferring, just as a friend not as a coach. I have zero regrets, I’m glad I did it. It fit me better at Rocky. Smaller school, smaller atmosphere.”
MTN: Coming from a Class C school, what was the jump in competition like? All of the sudden, you’re playing Division I basketball.
Stuart: “It was huge. I had seen, I went to the big-time basketball tournament in Vegas with a group from Montana, so I had seen that level, but not much. It was an intro to basketball. I felt like I had never played before. My level versus what I was seeing, I felt like I was a beginner again.”
MTN: Then you made your way to Rocky, where you went to the national tournament a couple times, you were an all-American there. What are some of your greatest memories from playing at Rocky?
Stuart: “University of Montana, I just never had the game memories like I did at Rocky and high school. Just really fortunate to play with really good guys. Spencer Allred transferred from the University of Montana the same year I did. He was a good friend of mine, great guy. So we had a group of guys where everyone liked each other, played well together. My first year at Rocky, we actually weren’t very good at all. Spencer had gotten hurt and our tallest player was 6-4. We entered the Frontier Conference tournament as the 6-seed, and then we beat the 3-seed, 2-seed and the 1-seed to win the championship and go. We got to the national tournament and we didn’t belong. We were 12-19, I think, so we were kind of the laughingstock there. We had to play the No. 1 team in the nation. We held our own, lost by 15 or 18. We held our own, but they were all pretty much Division I transfers from Cincinnati, Kentucky.”
MTN: How much of the success that you guys had in high school, as a team, you individually on the court, how much of that stems from Charlie Robinson and just the coaching impact he left?
Stuart: “Even to go back further, my dad used to put on a Saturday basketball in Gildford. A lot of people have given credit for that, because it was fundamentals. Nobody liked it, everyone hated my dad. We had to dribble through chairs, we never got to shoot, just all these hardcore fundamentals. That kind of led to us, by the time we got to high school, we knew what we were doing. Then we ran into Charlie, who still to this day is one of the best X-and-O guys I’ve ever been around. He was always two or three steps ahead of whoever we were playing. Although we didn’t watch a lot of film, he did. He scouted the other team. Not to sound corny, but we actually felt like he was kind of driving the boat and we already knew what we were doing and he was calling plays. We were really fortunate. I don’t think we could have a better coach in high school for what we were. He did a great job with us.”
MTN: That’s not the only two sports, football and basketball, that you’re successful in. Obviously, you were part of the team that started the five straight titles in track and field, threw the javelin against Kleinsasser, you were a sprinter. What were those battles like over the years with the rivals you had built over the years playing football and basketball?
Stuart: “Back then, all those guys, Kleinsasser, Fitzsimmons, Blue Sky was a rival. We played with Blue Sky for football, then they were a big rival of ours in basketball and they were good then. I would say we were all friends. To this day we’re all still friends. We were friends then, but we competed hard against each other and it was really important that on the floor we competed like we were enemies. We were always friends off the floor. Those Chester guys, Jared Christenot was my roommate my first year in college, so Fitzsimmons and him were really close friends, he was down a lot. It was just very important to have that little edge over those guys. But they were good guys, we were all good friends. We competed every sport, baseball included, against each other and went back and forth.”
MTN: So it doesn’t surprise you that Casey had all that success at Carroll and Jeff has had such a successful career coaching? None of that surprises you?
Stuart: “Not really. Casey was always, his mentality was always, you just knew he was going to continue to get better. He could have played basketball at the NAIA, for sure. Chose football, and he kind of filled in and got bigger. Casey was always one of the biggest competitors I played against. Very competitive, very much refused to lose. You had to beat him. I’m glad, once again, same with Casey, I’m glad we caught him when he was 6-3, 190 instead of 250.”
MTN: What are you guys doing now? I know your wife, Ashley (Hammond), played collegiately, as well. What are you guys doing these days trying to give back to the community or help with any youth programs around?
Stuart: “I was never an Xs-and-Os type player. I played off feel a lot, so I’m better off coaching at a younger level. I’ve been coaching by daughter’s fourth- and fifth-grade team, helping coach my son’s third-grade team. Just trying to, since we’ve lived in Malta, just trying to catch kids like Kendall Denham, Tucker Schye, Zach Handley went through. Little tips here and there, whether they take it or leave it, it’s just been nice to more offer help on the mental side of the game and just relax. That’s such a big part. That’s what I see in high school, is kids struggling handling the pressures of playing in big groups of people and a press. I feel like I’ve been able to offer some help to some of the kids around this area for that. When I was in high school, it was interesting, you don’t get to choose who the press is going to attach itself to. I was that guy in high school. It created a dynamic with my friends, people in the area, and I had gotten a lot of exposure. When I signed with the Griz, it was just a lot of newspaper articles always started with University of Montana player, and it was just a lot of pressure to deal with. I was fortunate to have really good teammates that they didn’t hold that against me. But it did add a dynamic to our team.”
MTN: Is that something you could see forcing teams apart these days, separating a locker room?
Stuart: “For me, if I would not have had, my brother was a teammate of mine, Chad Watson, Jared Miller, these guys were selfless guys. They knew we were better off if everybody was getting along. We just had a really good group of people that understood, yeah, I’m getting the press, but we weren’t winning because of me. We were winning because of our team. I always tried, any article or interview I gave, I always tried to say that. People take it as you being humble, but I actually always meant it. If a team would box-and-1 us, we’d win by 30, because our four were typically better than the four the other team had.”
MTN: You don’t win a state championship with one guy, right?
Stuart: “No. Actually my senior year against Chester, I got MVP that year, but it was, once again, the same sort of thing. I had been given most of the credit through that year. Chad Watson probably should have been, at least co-MVP. He had, I think, 32 in our first game and 24 in the semis. He got in foul trouble in the state championship game: three fouls with two minutes left to go in the first quarter. Then I started shooting well. It was a championship game, big stage.”
MTN: Since you moved back to Malta in 2008, what have you been up to working-wise?
Stuart: “We bought into a farm insurance agency here, been here since ’08. It was a really good move for us. My wife is from Whitewater, north of here about 30 miles. We were both raised in small towns and wanted to raise our kids in a similar way that we were raised. We loved Billings, but we don’t really miss living in Billings. We enjoy being here, lot of opportunity for the kids. We have a bunch of friends, our age group of people, that have also moved back to the area give or take five years of when we moved. So that’s been really nice. We’ve got a really good group of people in the area that sports is important, but we all understand it’s not the most important. But there is a lot of emphasis put on sports and basketball.”
MTN: You’ve got a couple kids. What kind of knowledge and wisdom do you try to instill upon them, even though it might be a little early, but as they mature through the years?
Stuart: “As far I’m concerned, they don’t think I know anything. Just little things. You try to let them be kids. Youth sports are starting earlier than when I was around. It’s hard for Ashley and I, there’s just a ton of emphasis on these tournaments and playing early. You kind of have to choose whether you do it or not, it’s all or nothing. We try to do other things outside of just basketball. The kids are doing soccer, volleyball, everything we can get them into now just to keep the emphasis off any one sport, just so they’re active.”
MTN: These days, do you try and get those kids to not focus on one sport and not be sport specific?
Stuart: “Yeah. For sure that is something that Ashley and I will press more than anything, is multi-sport. There was an article recently with the running back for the Carolina Panthers, Christian McCaffrey, the emphasis on multi-sport. I just think mentally is why that’s such a neat thing, because you can break up the monotony through the other sport with the next sport. Mentally, it can just keep your brain from focusing on one all of the time. So I’m a huge proponent of multi-sport, that’s what I was. My favorite sport was the sport I was playing. Football was my favorite sport during football. I don’t know if track was ever my favorite. Javelin, but not running. I just think it was neat, because although when I got to Missoula I was behind talent-wise, skill-wise I was behind, mentally it helped me make those decisions to eventually get to Rocky, and then at Rocky I just felt like having the background in all the other sports, it certainly didn’t hurt me. It had to have helped somewhere, just hard to figure out where.”
MTN: A lot of kids these days don’t see playing time at the lower levels because coaches are trying to win rather than focusing on developing players. What’s your take on that? How do you approach that?
Stuart: “I see that in youth sports. It’s hard to see, because I do think we’re missing on that. I think it should be more about, not so much the fundamentals like my dad was, times have changed a little. It’s still really important, but kids will stop playing if it’s not some level of fun. I think we just have to really continue to work on skill work with the kids — skills versus winning and losing games at fifth grade. I feel like what we did in high school with state championships and stuff like that was an accomplishment, but circle back to fifth and sixth grade and what I thought were accomplishments then actually were just kind of just helping get ready for an actual accomplishment.”
MTN: Stepping stones on the way?
Stuart: “Yep. I think if you put too much emphasis on accomplishments in fifth and sixth grade, it might actually lead them to feel like they’ve already accomplished something, maybe not leave more room for actual accomplishments later. So it’s a constant balancing act trying to get these kids ready.”