A smooth transition for North Prairie football
The North Prairie search didn't go far to find a replacement for Jalen Pfeifer, who was the North Dakota senior player of the year in the 2015 9-man high school football season.
Brody Cahill was Pfeifer's favorite receiver on last season's 11-1 team that was second in the state playoffs. Cahill switched from tight end to quarterback to succeed Pfeifer. The Cougars haven't skipped a beat, as the 9-0 team hosts Kenmare-Bowbells-Burke County in a state quarterfinal game at 2 p.m. today in Rolla.
The Cougars' quarterback spot "was kind of up in the air until fall practices started,'' Cahill said. "I knew I had big shoes to fill. But I was excited about the switch. I didn't feel any pressure.''
North Prairie entered the season with some experience. Five starters returned on offense, including building blocks on the line in guards Linden Stave and Tucker Boucher. Four starters were back on a defense led by all-state linebackers Cahill and Garrett Munro.
But graduation losses included Pfeifer, North Dakota State recruit Karson Schoening on the line and 1,400-yard rusher Tayler Scott. And Pat Wilkes moved from assistant to head coach, replacing Terry Motl.
Because of the losses, Cahill said, a lot of people probably didn't expect North Prairie to be where it is.
"We lost a lot of good players,'' Cahill said. "But we felt we had a base to build around. We felt we would be up to the challenge. I think we played with a chip on our shoulders every week.''
Gabe Leonard has picked up the slack in the backfield, quadrupling his rushing yards (119-1,109, 16 TDs) from last season. Cahill (73-807, 15 TDs) and Munro (57-640, 12 TDs) give the Cougars a trio of running threats.
Cahill is a productive 42-of-79 passing for 741 yards. Brandon Lalim replaced Schoening at center.
"It's always a big hit to lose the players the caliber of last year's seniors,'' Wilkes said. "But we had a good junior class, good athletes and good football players. And things have fallen into place.''
Two narrow regions wins—by 36-34 over St. John and 24-22 over Towner-Granville-Upham—were keys for the Cougars.
And those came about because players were able to step in and fill key spots in the lineup.
"Brandon probably had the toughest transition,'' Wilkes said. "He actually should be a junior age-wise and he'd played guard in the past. But we decided to try him at center. He grabbed onto it and never gave it up.
"Brody saw a little time at quarterback last year. We figured he could be a good quarterback. He's athletic and he has a good football IQ.''
As far as the new coaching staff—Wilkes at head coach and new assistants Jaden Pfeifer and Josh Keller—it was status quo.
"I'd had a great working relationship with Terry,'' Wilkes said. "I'd run the offense the last several years. We kept most of the things we did in place. If it isn't broken, you don't try to fix it until it does break.
"And it's a great bunch of kids to work with. It's been fun from Day 1. But that hasn't been surprising to us.''