What a difference a couple of years can make. In 2015, Prairie dropped its football program all together. The program was revived in 2016 under first year coach Justin Kerns. The Mustangs won just a single game and lost their six games by an average of 40 points per game. That included a 62-13 loss to Fleming to end the season. The team hasn't lost since then. The Mustangs just completed an undefeated regular season and, as a result, earned the No. 2 overall seed heading into the 6-Man playoffs. Kerns has coached a variety of sports at several schools, but is the first to admit that he has never had a team that has seen this level of success. The Mustangs generate 455 all-purpose yards per game and the defense has surrendered only 117 points all year. Through the first two games of the 2016 season, the Mustangs gave up 119 total points. This team has come a long way in a short time. And a big part of the success is Kerns' desire to teach the kids on the field as much as in the classroom. He is this week's Denver Broncos High School Coach of the Week. The Broncos coach of the week is selected in partnership with the Broncos, CHSCA, and the InSideOut Coaching Initiative, which seeks to transform the current win-at-all-costs sports culture.
Years as head coach: 2 (9-6 overall)
Years at Prairie: 2 (9-6)
Previous stops: Deer Trail High School assistant coach (2007-08), Woodlin assistant coach (2009-13), Briggsdale assistant coach (2014) , Prairie head coach (2016-present)
Q: Why did you get into coaching?
Kerns: Back in high school I was very involved with athletics. I grew up around a lot of different athletic events, you know, big Broncos fan growing up. Big CSU Rams, CU Buffs fan. When I decided to become a teacher, I thought that athletics and teaching go hand-in-hand. It's really a cool 1-A and 1-B as an educator to work with kids in the classroom and on the field.
Q: Why do you coach the way that you coach?
Kerns: I coach the way that I coach having coached with other really good coaches. I worked with guys at Deer Trail, Woodlin, my high school coaches; we tend to be a little more aggressive. This year, with the squad that we have, we have the ability to be a little more aggressive as opposed to being conservative. When we go too conservative, we tend to make mistakes so we tend to coach pretty aggressively. With the kids, we try to keep it really light-hearted and enjoyable. There are times that you need to get on the kids, but there are times that you need to remember that they're kids. You need to let them enjoy the sport they're playing.
Q: Speaking of the kids, what do you think it's like for them to be coached by you?
Kerns: I think they look forward to practice. Again, it's pretty light-hearted, but when it's time to be serious, we get serious. We always try to do some sort of fun activity in practice, whether it's letting each kid attempt a field goal and the winners get some sort of prize while those who don't win have to do some sort of conditioning. We do our best to be in the weight room, to get film and if the kids have an opinion, they are welcome to share it with me. They're the ones on the field. Even in the last game we had, there were multiple times where I asked the kids what they saw and what they thought would work. I'm afraid there are a number of coaches who don't do that with their students. With my kids, they enjoy practice. They look forward to it and I don't have kids missing practice because they're afraid to be out there. They really want to be out on the field.
Q: What are some of your favorite memories when it comes to coaching?
Kerns: Oh my. This is the first year that I've been involved that has been this successful. Some of my favorite coaching memories are from when I had teams that aren't as successful and playing successful teams. Getting our game plans ready when you're a sub-.500 team going against a top-five team in the state, trying to figure out what we can do to get them off their game is super enjoyable. I coached basketball for a number of years and one year we just had five players. We took a team into triple-overtime and finished with four. We ended up losing by three points, 34-31, but it was one of the most enjoyable games I ever coached. Taking five players into triple-overtime is impressive, no matter win or lose.
Q: Sunday you got a glimpse of the path you'll have to take to get these kids to a state championship. Is there a difference from your mentality when you can see that map?
Kerns: It is, I'll be honest with you. Coming in as a two-seed and getting the draw for 15. I like that we get to play Edison. But at the same time, Edison has had some success this year. They're kind of like us where last year they weren't very successful. Last year they actually teamed up with Hanover. This year, they've had some success. We're in the same sort of boat. But I do like looking forward. If we were to get past Edison this week, there are two teams that we're completely unfamiliar with and that excites me as a coach. Cotopaxi and Kit Carson are two teams that we are unfamiliar with and that are unfamiliar with us. It is a chance to try some new things and to see how football is played in a different part of the state.
Q: You had mentioned that this is the first team that you've had that's been this successful, does that help in that those kids might not know the pressure the regular season success brings come playoff time?
Kerns: To a point. I have, on my team right now, four kids that have been to the postseason. A couple years ago, Prairie dropped the program and one of my players went to Pawnee who had success. This year, we picked up three players from Pawnee who went to the playoffs last year. And these kids were successful in junior high, the kids that I have now. But it is kind of nice being fresh at it so that you don't have that knowledge of what playing in the playoffs is all about. But at the same time, we do have kids who have been there before and they are our team leaders. They help to get the younger guys focused and moving forward.
Story credit: Dan Mohrmann/CHSAANow.com
Photo credit: Prairie High School