Cedar Rapids Prairie comfortable in Year 2 under Mark Bliss
Hawks have to replace bulk of offensive production, but comfort in system eases transition
CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids Prairie football practice is a little more relaxed this year.
Make no mistake: the Hawks have practiced hard and with the intensity of a group that wants more than anything to improve upon a 4-6 record and first-round playoff exit last season. But the stress of 2015’s fall camp seems to have melted away, replaced by a much smoother one this season, and that’s all owed to it being Year 2 in the Mark Bliss era.
Bliss, who took over as head coach last season, has seen a marked improvement in his players, and where they are at this point is light years ahead of where they were last year.
“They’ve retained so much from last year, so the transition is exactly where I hoped it would be,” Bliss said. “The kids have done a great job doing what they’ve been asked to do. We’re off and running, and I can’t complain.
“Overall, in terms of where we are in all three phases and the program itself and the weight program, we’re finally there. It took us a year to get there, but we’re there. We’re hoping to see the repercussions from that this season.”
Prairie enters Bliss’ second season in a much more comfortable place, yes, but without its top four offensive producers — 84.7 percent of its total offensive yards, to be exact.
Gone are Gazette Athlete of the Year Jalen Rima, running backs Trevor Northrup and Hunter Johnson, and quarterback Tyler Nunemaker. Bliss must find some capable players to fill those roles in his single-wing offense, which he brought with him and implemented last season. He mentioned Zach Ganske and Joe Meyer at running back and Levi Usher and Preston LeGrange at receiver as major positives in that area.
The year these newcomers have had to learn that system has been invaluable, and has allowed Bliss and his assistants to evaluate talent much easier.
“The kids understand the system, so we’ve got prospects who can step in and keep things where they were last year, if not even build on it and add some wrinkles and have some fun,” Bliss said. “We try to find players who will fit our system, and sometimes you have to move guys around. The system we’ve got in place, we’ve been fortunate enough to plug guys in.”
It’s not a total loss in production, though. The Hawks return their top three tacklers from last season, led by Jaydon Goos, who will transition to defensive end this season.
Bliss said having at least one side of the ball back with some experience allows him to focus a little more on placing those players in key spots on offense. It doesn’t hurt, either, that guys like Goos, Cameron LeGrange and Tavian Borseth have stepped up in leadership, too.
Goos demonstrated that with his willingness to move to defensive end. He wants to let his play do the talking, and knows the team has potential if they come together in Year 2 under Bliss.
“As a team leader, I’ve progressed as much as I can in making my team better and helping other players,” Goos said. “I’m working my butt off to do the best I can (at defensive end) and make sure my team knows I’m there and always working hard.
“With Coach Bliss’ new program, we’ve really progressed, especially in the weight room. We’ve built as a team; pushed each other hard. It’s made us all better.”
It’s not just easier from a coaching perspective, to be certain.
The players all feel way ahead of schedule, too, and that leads to way more fun than before. Being in Bliss’ system is a dream for players who get to run the ball, and for the guys who love run blocking, so when Zach Gankse was thrust into the lead running back role, he seized it with earnest.
Prairie has eyes on the playoffs again, and improving on that 4-6 record from last season.
“We’ve worked hard this summer and were really eager to get back this season,” Ganske said. “We run the ball a lot and everybody — we have three or four guys who can run the ball. We can all carry the load and hopefully we’ll have success at it.
“I feel like we’re a lot more prepared. We carried a lot in from last year. I think it’s good for all of us.”
CEDAR RAPIDS PRAIRIE AT A GLANCE
• Coach: Mark Bliss (2nd year, 4-6; 163-63 career)
• Last year: 4-6
• Top returning letterwinners: DE Jaydon Goos, D Cameron LeGrange, LB Tavian Borseth, RB Zach Ganske, RB Joe Meyer, QB Dakota Simonsen, WR Levi Usher, WR Preston LeGrange
• Key losses: WR Jalen Rima, QB Tyler Nunemaker, RB Trevor Northrup, RB/WR Hunter Johnson, DT Taylor Mehmen, DB Quinton Phelps, DT Mason Ramm
• Key to making the playoffs: If Prairie can find capable players to replace all it lost in production on offense, Year 2 in the single wing offense could be much better. Learning who works where during non-district play will have a lasting effect for the home stretch.
• Games to watch: Week 1 vs. C.R. Washington, Week 3 at Clinton, Week 5 vs. Iowa City West, Week 9 at C.R. Kennedy.
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