Prairie’s the team to beat

Prairie running back Cole Martin takes on a trio of defenders during Tuesday’s practice in Cottonwood. Martin is the defending Idaho Class 1A-Division I player of the year who earlier this summer was recognized by Sports Illustrated.

Asked about the football hierarchy of this year’s Whitepine League Division I, Potlatch’s Ryan Ball cited a season preview he filled out earlier this month for an online publication.

“I said, ‘Prairie, book it. State champions,’” Ball said of the Pirates from Cottonwood, who thumped everyone en route to an 11-0 record and the Idaho Class 1A-Division I state title last year.

“They’re gonna be a dominant team, and anyone who tells you different doesn’t understand football. They have that many talented kids coming back, that it’s gonna be tough to challenge them at the top.”

Throughout the past week, WPL coaches were polled on the league’s predicted 2020 pecking order — asked which teams they see as potentially making jumps and turning heads.

It’s the unanimous ­consensus right now: Prairie surely is the one to beat, the team with what seems like an unhittable target on its back, a powerhouse high school football factory in Idaho whose most talented individual athlete, running back/linebacker Cole Martin, has garnered a national shout out, from Sports Illustrated.

“Prairie’s gonna be Prairie,” Lapwai coach Josh Leighton said.

Added Troy’s Bobby Wilson: “Obviously it’s Prairie. They’re gonna be something to deal with.”

Once more?

“I won’t even talk about Prairie, because I think everyone’s expectation is they’re gonna take the league,” chipped in first-year Genesee coach Alex Schnebly.

All right, now that’s settled.

But behind the Pirates, there’ll likely be a mess of similarly talented groups vying for those other two or three State spots, a collection of WPL teams expected to once again exhibit parity.

Last season, every team down the rankings had one less league win than the one before — Prairie at 6-0, Potlatch at 5-1, Clearwater Valley (Kooskia) at 4-2, etc.

“There’s three or four teams in the middle of the pack there,” Kamiah coach Nels Kludt said. “It’s really hard to tell at this point in time.”

The general opinion among the league’s seven coaches is Lapwai will take a major step forward after a 2-6 season, in which the Wildcats dropped three tight league games. Lapwai, which played without much varsity experience on its roster last year, lost just one player to graduation. At quarterback, the Wildcats again will enjoy the services of Titus Yearout, an agile 6-foot-2 junior and second-teamer as a signal-caller and defensive back.

“I’m realistic. I think Prairie and Lapwai will probably be above us all,” CV coach Allen Hutchens said.

“Lapwai’s got a ton of talent,” Kludt observed. “They can really do things skill-wise, and the kids up front were pretty young last year. They can be extremely dangerous.”

In 2019, the WPL’s Nos. 2 and 3 teams — Potlatch and CV — relied heavily on contributions from seniors, and routed just about everyone except Prairie, and each other. It’d be fair to assume the two State qualifiers might fall back a touch in the standings while adjusting to depth charts comprised of a multitude of newcomers ... and for the Rams, a first-year head coach in Hutchens.

“Potlatch’s numbers are down, but Ball is just a great coach, so I don’t know there,” Prairie’s Ryan Hasselstrom said.

“CV, they still have a lot of kids that are pretty good,” Kludt said, mentioning hard-nosed middle linebacker Dylan Pickering. “They’ve been tough the last couple years.”

Kamiah and Troy each posted 5-4 marks last season, and seek slight improvements in hopes of a bid to the postseason, which the Kubs missed by eight points in 2019, losing to CV in their finale. Kamiah returns four all-league honorees, including brisk receiver-turned-quarterback Gabe Eades — singled out by many as one of the WPL’s finest.

“From what I’ve heard, I think Kamiah should be pretty decent this year. They got some good kids coming in,” Hasselstrom said. “Their numbers are in the 20s, they’re well-coached and traditionally have a solid program down there.”

Troy graduated five All-WPL picks from 2019, but thankfully, saw its less-experienced players fare well then. The Trojans bring back all-league running back Elijah Phillis to shoulder the load for their second-year coach.

“They lost a lot, but I think they’ll be in the mix,” Leighton said of Troy. “It’ll depend on the younger guys.”

Said Hasselstrom: “Wilson will get some of those younger guys to play really well.”

The wild card in a WPL season that feels like mostly a toss-up? Genesee, which welcomed a handful of Washingtonians from Colton High School to the fold. The Bulldogs, after a winless league season last year, might be near the top of the pack in terms of varsity background and depth on their roster. Fourteen have experience at this level, led by a receiving tandem of all-leaguer Cy Wareham and lengthy Dawson Durham.

“Genesee could really sneak up on people with the addition of those Colton kids,” Leighton said.

“You really don’t know how the Colton guys are gonna affect them,” Ball said. “Really, there’s a lot of upcoming things this year that you don’t know about.”

Except Prairie.

Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.

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