PRAIRIE DU CHIEN — The message for the Prairie du Chien High School football team this season was simple: Get better one day at a time.
The Blackhawks had lost all five of their starting offensive linemen, their tight end, both of their leading rushers and their quarterback from a team that won a SWC title before losing to New Glarus/Monticello in the first round of the WIAA playoffs.
Oh, yeah. And coach Jason Thiry, who was about to enter his fourth season at the helm, also accepted a new position as associate principal/activities director at Onalaska High School and left the Blackhawks without a coach two days before the first practice.
All of these unanswered questions had many thinking that a .500 season could be considered a success, but new coach Cory Koenig and the rest of the Blackhawks had different ideas.
The longtime assistant made a seamless transition into Thiry’s old spot, and Prairie du Chien did not miss a beat. Under Koenig, the Blackhawks (11-2) reached the state semifinals for the first time since 1988 and captivated the community in the process.
For that reason, Koenig is one of two people being named the Tribune’s coach of the year. Caledonia’s Carl Fruechte, whose Warriors won their fifth straight MSHSL Class AA championship, is the other.
For Koenig, it means a lot not only for him, but also for Prairie du Chien football.
“The recognition means a couple of things,” Koenig said. “It means that I’m surrounded by great people, have a bunch of great kids in our program, (and) we have an outstanding coaching staff.
“It means we have a great community. And I think the other thing is that it shows over the past few years what Prairie du Chien football has done must be getting noticed a little bit. We have had a pretty good run here in the last four or five years.”
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But this year it all came together.
Starting with the season opener, it was apparent to Koenig that he had a special group. With all those question marks on offense and Koenig’s first game as coach, the Blackhawks found themselves trailing Aquinas 6-0 after the Blugolds scored with less than three minutes left in regulation. But the young Blackhawks didn’t blink and responded with a 66-yard scoring drive capped off by senior quarterback Dylan Coleman’s 15-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Mason Kramer with just over a minute remaining.
It was an exciting start to the Koenig Era.
“At that point, one of the things that really struck me about what this team could do was there was no panic whatsoever from a bunch of guys that were really playing varsity for the first time,” Koenig said. “They marched straight down the field, and we scored, and then we had a kicker, who never kicked an extra point before, drill one right through the uprights. It kind of set the tone for the season.”
The Blackhawks fell two weeks later to River Valley 18-7. That was their last loss until a 25-0 loss to eventual state champion Lake Country Lutheran on Nov. 15.
Led by a terrific group of seniors in the forms of Coleman, receiver/linebacker Ben Riter, receiver/defensive back Mason Kramer and Viroqua transfer running back/linebacker Tyler Hannah, the Blackhawks won nine in a row while outscoring their opponents 265-92. But it all clicked for them during a 58-8 manhandling of Dodgeville. That’s where the belief started setting in for Prairie du Chien.
“I think the light bulb went off for the kids and they went, ‘Wow, this is what the coaching staff has been talking about the last three to four weeks,” Koenig said. “If we can do this and put it all together, we’re going to be real dangerous because our offense has pieces and our defense had played phenomenal all year.”
The Blackhawks rode all that momentum into the playoffs where they knocked off New Glarus/Monticello and Arcadia before beating G-E-T 10-0 to punch their ticket to the Division 5 state semifinals. That’s where the Blackhawks’ season ended — much later than most expected.
“Our standards, I mean, it’s more than just winning, it’s about being able to go out and trust each other,” Koenig said. “It’s about being able to go out and trust your coaches are going to put you in the best position to win. It’s going out there and being good leaders in the community.
“And I think when you do all of those things, the football aspect of it just becomes that much easier. Because you’re used to trusting your teammates, you’re used to trusting your coaches. So I think the culture here that we’re trying to get across to these kids is working well.”