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Cornell College excited for 2021 football season under new head coach
Dan Pifer begins first season as Rams head coach
MOUNT VERNON — Dan Pifer has coached football for 24 years.
This season, however, is accompanied by a few butterflies. Ones caused by anticipation more than anxiety for what awaits in his first competitive season as Cornell College’s head coach.
“We’ve been with our kids for a full year but we still haven’t seen them play in a game,” said Pifer, who was hired in December of 2019 to replace former head coach Vince Brautigam. “Practice is one thing but when the lights turn on you need to see who will step up.
“It’s probably the most nervous I’ve ever been going into a season because you just don’t know.”
Pifer is the program’s 15th head coach. The Rams return 13 seniors from a 4-5 team in 2019 and welcome 48 freshmen, their largest incoming class. Cornell opens the season against rival Coe at Van Metre Field at Ash Park on Sept. 4.
“We have a good mix of seniors. We brought in the largest freshman class. There’s not a lot of in-between as far as depth, so we’re top heavy and bottom heavy for the team.
“It’s going to be a week-to-week thing for what we do.”
Pifer owns a 34-28 record in seven seasons as head coach at Olivet (Mich.) College and Walsh (Ohio) University. He also had stops as an assistant at Bowling Green, Trine and indoor football.
He resurrected the Olivet program from a winless 0-10 first season to an NCAA Division III playoff qualifier, claiming an outright Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association title and tying for one. Olivet was 18-3 in his final two seasons at the helm.
Pifer acknowledged similarities between the two situations and said the Rams have more experience than his first Olivet squad.
“The thing here that is nice is we have a lot more older kids,” Pifer said. “We have a good group of seniors, who will be playing and can help us out. We have a good group for leadership.
“We’re hoping to skip a step in the process by having a good group of older guys here instead of almost starting a program from scratch. We hope it is going to pay dividends for us.”
The Rams have embraced their new coach.
“The transition has been great,” Cornell senior tight end Mason Davis said. “He brings accountability to the team, starting with the seniors at top to set this new precedent with everybody.”
Many D-III programs have had players train and practice since their last competition. The Rams didn’t have any spring matchups, like some other programs. They have put in the work and sweat with no payoff on the field.
“That’s one of the toughest things,” defensive tackle Kale Kuhiiki said. “Coaches preach to us to stack our pennies, meaning to get better every day and it prepares us. Slowly stacking our pennies will get us ready for when we’re finally in a game.”
Pifer has had more than a year to work with players. He has been impressed with their abilities in practice. The key will be how it transfers in competition, which leads to that uncertainty.
The hope is he will get a better idea during the intrasquad scrimmage Saturday and next week’s scrimmage against Luther.
We haven’t really had the lights turned on,” Pifer said. “Let’s go see what we’ve got now.
“We know we have some good players, but when the lights turn on you can you do the same thing.”
Offensively, the Rams return Davis, a 6-foot-4, 249-pounder who had 487 receiving yards on 32 catches and four touchdowns.
Davis said he is ready to show he is more than a receiving threat to foes.
“I didn’t get a lot of chances for blocking and show the full skillset,” Davis said. “I’m really excited to get the chance. Teams haven’t really seen that side of me, yet, getting on the line on the ball and getting dirty to do that.”
He will be an important weapon offensively.
“He’s going to be a threat every week,” Pifer said. “He’s got a tight-end body but can play wideout as well. He’s a guy we have to rely on to make plays.”
Running back Peni Waqairatu led all returners with 569 rushing yards. He added three scores.
“He has a lot of game experience,” Pifer said. “He’s a big kid and can get downhill. He can push the pile and get hard yards.”
Starting quarterback Isaak Hahn, a former Marion prep, returns with 1,344 passing yards and six TDs.
They all benefit from four starters back on the offensive line, including second-team all-MIdwest Conference pick Matthew Corley.
“We’re always going to adjust to what we have for our talent,” Pifer said. “We’re doing that defensively, making some subtle changes, We’ll do the same thing offensively.
“We might go in thinking we’re going to throw it all the time and then we end up with a pretty good line and running backs we’ll end up running more. … we have to be willing to adapt.”
The defense is the most seasoned. Five seniors are back from two years ago, including Kuhiiki, who was the 2018 MWC South Division Newcomer of the Year, and second-team all-MWC South defensive back Demarius Pittman.
“We need to pick it up,” Kuhiiki said. “The offense will get better as the season goes on. They will know what is going on. The defense will need to pick it up so the offense will be OK.”
Last season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This will be Cornell’s first game since November 2019.
“I’m fired up,” Davis said. “It’s been two years, especially the first game is at home against Coe. We’re fired up. It’s about time to hit somebody.”