This summer, Sam Baerlocher of Florence is going to be doing something different. Instead of ferrying a bunch of teenage boys around to summer basketball tournaments and putting on camps, he will be rebuilding roofs and painting houses. After 28 years of coaching in some capacity or another, Baerlocher has stepped down as the head boys’ basketball coach in Florence.
“I need something different,” he said recently. “I want to watch Reid play, and spend more time with my family.”
Although his family is just as entrenched in basketball as he is, they are becoming more scattered geographically. His oldest son, Reid, plays for Montana Tech. Although Baerlocher made it to some games, he wants to see more in the next couple of years.
His parents have long been a fixture at the Florence games; but they are aging and it’s getting more and more difficult for them to get to the games. Baerlocher wants to be available for them and help them out more. Even though his youngest son, Rhett, will only be a junior next year, he feels this is the perfect time to step down.
Baerlocher graduated from Frenchtown in 1977 where he starred on the Broncs basketball team. He went on and played two years at what is now UM Western in Dillon. He also played on the junior varsity at the University of Montana. He never started on the varsity but did contribute in a different way.
He was on the scout team and had to run plays that the Grizzlies would face. At that time, Mike Montgomery was the head coach of the Grizzlies and Stew Morrill was the assistant. Both coaches had legendary coach Jud Heathcote as their mentors and so, by association; Baerlocher learned many of his objectives and coaching methods.
“It was an amazing opportunity,” said Baerlocher.
After graduating with an education degree, he spent a year and a half at Townsend, Montana. He came to Florence 28 years ago and began teaching physical education. Since then he figures he has put in 50 years coaching. This involves being an assistant for the girls’ basketball team for four years and nine years as the head coach. He has been the boy’s basketball coach for the last seven years and put in 24 years as the track coach over the years.
“I’ve been the luckiest man in the world,” he said. “Being able to coach my kids and the other kids. The friendships I’ve made, it has been great.”
Over the years, Baerlocher has enlisted the help of several assistant coaches that he said has made his job even better. Tom Demmons and Sam Richter brought age and experience.
“Their knowledge is incredible. They see everything in the game. It’s easy for younger coaches to concentrate on one aspect of the game but you need everything to have success.”
But Baerlocher also enlisted the help of younger assistants. Brothers Kiel and Ryan Hansen were Falcon basketball players before Baerlocher was the head coach. Both Hansen brothers have been assistants for him and bring a different perspective to the bench. Another one who Baerlocher said was great fun to coach with was Jake Mickelson who is now a coach and teacher at Thompson Falls. In a sense, Baerlocher has become the mentor to these young men.
He feels he became a better coach after he became a parent because he understood more what happened outside of the gym. But he has never accepted anything less than the best efforts from his teams.
“Our job is to put the athletes in a position to succeed,” he said. That success may not always be a state championship but he worked hard to get the best out of his players.
Baerlocher won a state championship in 1998 with his Lady Falcons. This team was very close to each other much like this year’s boys team. They worked their way up through the ranks. The first year they went to state, they actually placed fourth in the district tournament and then won the Western B Divisional before losing in the semi finals at state. The next year they came back and won the championship.
As he names the team – Ember Harberts, Molly round, Christa Cornish, Heather Branzell – you can see him remembering the games and the practices these girls put in to reach their goal.
It is the kids that have impacted Baerlocher the most. As he looks back and relates stories about the different players he’s coached, there is never a bad memory, only ones that show how much the student athlete had grown and accomplished. Whether it is the girls state championship track team in 2001 or this year’s third place boys’ basketball team, Baerlocher tells stories about how a student accomplished something they didn’t think they could or how they were the best team player he’d ever had.
When asked about highlights of his coaching career, this year’s season is certainly right up there. First there was the 40-point win over archrival Missoula Loyola. (He tries not to grin but just can’t help it.) Then there are the wins over Bigfork, first at the Western B in Kalispell, and then the consolation game at state.
“To win in Kalispell, which is basically Bigfork’s back yard, was tough. They were a great team. And then to beat them for third place was almost against the odds.”
One other highlight this year didn’t occur on the court. Florence was awarded the MHSA/NorthWestern Energy Academic Excellence Award for 2011-2012. This award is given to one school in each classification with the highest GPA. Students’ GPA in all of the extra curricular activities are used in determining this award.
“This was not only for basketball but also for music, football, everything,” he said. “I am so proud of all of these kids.”
Over the years Baerlocher has seen a change in the athletes he coached. He said the skills of the players have improved, in part because of the summer ball and tournaments that are not the norm for teams. And the summer ball gives players a chance to compete against players from other classifications and that also helps them improve.
Through the years, there have been several students that have impacted Baerlocher and his players. There were those that didn’t want to give up and those that didn’t have the skill but worked until they did. There have been families that have practically adopted Baerlocher and then there have been those that found fault with him. But he looks past those and focuses on the good.
One such student that has made an impression on him is Jack Finlay, a former player, current student at the University of Montana and in the battle of his life again ALS. Jack has been at every game, cheering on his brother, Mike, and the Falcons. Seeing him on the sidelines reminded Baerlocher that there is more to life than basketball.