116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Let's look at the numbers.
Head coach Mark Bliss' sleight-of-hand, single-wing offense generated 3,503 rushing yards and 50 rushing touchdowns last season at Cedar Rapids Prairie. Those were totals ranking second and first, respectively, in Class 4A.
West Des Moines Dowling surpassed the Hawks' yardage only because it played two more games.
Players who accounted for 3,003 yards and 46 TDs graduated. Hyperventilating, yet, Prairie fans?
No one associated with the team seems to be sweating it.
'The people we lost, we have some guys who we think (can) fill their positions,' said Prairie senior linebacker-receiver Gavin Dooley. 'The upcoming junior class, we have the guys and the size to fill back up for the seniors who left. We've just got to put the people in the right spots. So far, I think we've done that.'
'A lot of our seniors last year were pretty talented, but I think we have some pretty good athletes, we put in a lot of good work this summer,' added senior guard Derek Horak. 'I still expect us to be pretty successful.'
Prairie was the surprise 4A team on this side of the state in 2016, winning District 8 and a first-round playoff game before bowing out to Iowa City West. Few saw it coming, though perhaps more should have considering Bliss has won everywhere he has coached in a rather vagabond career that includes stints at schools in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri.
This is his third season at Prairie, which he repeatedly has said will be his last coaching stop.
'The best way for kids to really commit is to have a heart-to-heart (chat) with them,' he said. 'These kids know I love them, that I'd do anything for them. We feel like we've created something pretty special here, and, hopefully, we can maintain that. Talent, year in and year out, dictates how some of that plays out. But just in terms of where we're at in establishing a culture with our kids ... We're having fun, and that's what it's all about. Especially at my age.'
The unique single wing gives Prairie an edge because it is difficult to prepare for defensively, especially on short notice. But you've got to have good athletes to run it at an optimal level, and Bliss feels he has those in hand, though they are inexperienced at the varsity level.
Junior running back Keegan Simmons rushed for 1,500 yards last season on the sophomore team, and will be counted upon heavily, as will senior Braxton Zimmerman. Bliss mentioned senior wingbacks Jaron Lathrop and Abdi Abdi as important pieces as well.
Senior Dalton Rayner came in at quarterback midseason after an injury to starter Dakota Simonsen and finished with six touchdown passes and no interceptions. Senior wide receiver Levi Usher is a nightmare to defend on the outside, and he'll surely get the ball a lot, too.
An exceptional baseball player, he missed most of the first week of practice to play in Perfect Game USA's All-American Baseball Game in San Diego.
'I was pleased with their work ethic this summer,' Bliss said. 'I'm curious to see how we're going to respond. We'll see what happens ... Our biggest goal is to make sure our kids understand the importance of competing. If you can compete and do the absolute very best that you can, the guy next to you is relying on you to do your job. If you do that, most of the time winning is a byproduct of that. We try and teach and preach that every day.'
Prairie also must replace its top six tacklers from last season and 12 of its top 13. Again, there doesn't appear to be any panic with that in camp.
Everyone thinks it'll be a successful season.
'We have a good thing going, I think,' Horak said.
'I feel Prairie's on the rise after last year,' Dooley said. 'Us and this junior class, we have chemistry. We all grew up together, played up and down together on baseball teams, basketball teams, competitive football teams, Metro Youth and everything. I feel like we've got a really good chance again at that district championship.'
Prairie, at a glance
Coach: Mark Bliss (3rd season at Prairie, 13-8 record; 172-65 career record)
Last year: 9-2 (district champ, lost in Class 4A playoff quarterfinals to Iowa City West)
Top returning letterwinners: QB Dalton Rayner, WR-DB Levi Usher, RB Braxton Zimmerman, G-DL Derek Horak, DB Jaylynn Smith.
Key losses: RB Joe Meyer, RB Zach Ganske, QB Dakota Simonsen, L Calvin Hynek, L Chance Halfhill, WR-DB Preston LaGrange.
Key to making the playoffs: Getting an inexperienced team up to speed quickly. Believe. Coach Bliss has been a winner everywhere he has been and has this program on a good path.
Games to watch: The opener against Washington — albeit a close loss — last season set the tone for a surprisingly successful season. Could it again? The Kolach Bowl against Cedar Rapids Jefferson follows the next week. The Sept. 22 game at Iowa City West also could be a biggie.
Aug. 25 — at Cedar Rapids Washington
Aug. 31 — at Cedar Rapids Jefferson
Sept. 8 — Clinton
Sept. 15 — Davenport Central
Sept. 22 — at Iowa City West
Sept. 29 — Ottumwa
Oct. 6 — at Linn-Mar
Oct. 13 — at Burlington
Oct. 20 — Cedar Rapids Kennedy
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