PHS alumni Blaine Escher, Josh Burns and Lucas Wiggins will make up the majority of the Eagles coaching staff as the program heads into the post-Brent McRae era. Veteran coaches Don Holt and Scott Rienks will help with the transition.
"It's nice to return to the community that gave us so much, and to start giving back," said Burns, who will focus on special teams. "That's what it's about."
Escher will take over as head coach. A 2011 graduate, Escher was a three-sport athlete and starting receiver for the Eagles. He showed promise early on, growing from a five-foot, six-inch JV freshman to a 6-2 wide receiver and free safety his senior year. On special teams he returned kickoffs and punts and was PAT holder.
After high school Escher was a receiver for the University of Northern Colorado, where he earned a degree in exercise science. Halfway through his second season he suffered a career-ending knee injury. "It's okay, though," says Escher. "Everything happens for a reason."
In 2015 Escher returned home to earn money for graduate school and accepted an invitation from McRae to join the coaching staff. He quickly transitioned to special teams, and also started substitute teaching. Last school year he taught physical education at De Beque High School, and coached the track team. If De Beque had a football program, he would have joined the coaching staff.
This spring he accepted an assistant football coaching position at Grand Valley for the 2017-18 school year. Then he got word that McRae was leaving. "I have always wanted to end up back here," said Escher. But stepping into McRae's shoes, he admits, was intimidating. In five years under McRae the Eagles earned a 47-5 record, four league titles, and state titles in 2013 and 2014. In 2015 they were state runners-up.
When McRae announced he was leaving to teach at Mountain Vista High School, Rienks immediately thought of Escher. "Blaine loves football," said Rienks. He remembers Escher as a passionate player who switched from baseball to track his sophomore year to gain the speed needed to play at the college level. A former longtime teacher and coach at De Beque with 23 years of coaching football, Rienks recommended Escher for the De Beque job.
A 2009 graduate, Burns majored in special education at UNC, then taught specialized behavior in Weld County for four years, where he coached prep wrestling and peewee sports. He was heading into his second year at University High School in Greeley.
Last spring, Burns said, he attended a Delta track meet to watch younger brother Jesse compete. When Burns left for college, Jesse was 7 years old. Now he's a junior, said Burns. That realization hit him hard and got him thinking about coming home.
At the urging of mom Kitty Burns, he checked the school district website and saw that the PHS special education position had been posted that morning. "It was meant to be," said Burns. He ran into Escher at the meet and suggested he also check the district jobs postings.
A few weeks later Escher was approached by PHS principal Randal Palmer about the head coaching job. "It's a big responsibility," said Escher. So he called Burns for advice.
"I told him he would be surrounded by other good coaches and to go for it," said Burns.
Escher immediately tapped Wiggins as defensive coordinator. He and Holt will also team up to focus on O-line and D-line.
Wiggins was head coach of the middle school football and wrestling programs at Paonia for two years and his experience and familiarity with the underclassmen is invaluable, said Escher.
Wiggins showed interest in coaching at an early age and was a volunteer youth coach in high school. Also a 2009 graduate, he was an all-state running back and state champion wrestler. He went on to play football on a scholarship at Fort Lewis before transferring to Colorado Mesa University. His college career was also cut short by knee injuries, but he played two years of semi-pro football for the Grand Junction Gladiators.
After college he commuted daily from Grand Junction to coach before returning to the North Fork area for good. He was head coach of the middle school football and wrestling programs for two seasons. "Just giving back to the kids, it's kind of the main reason I moved back here," said Wiggins.
Between the talent of the returning players and the quality of the coaching staff, said Wiggins, "This is going to be a very good football team."
Working with McRae and his staff has helped him prepare for his new job, but Escher said he's also relying on the wisdom of the veteran coaches to get through the season. "Being around that kind of atmosphere, seeing how the kids respond to that kind of coaching is the approach I'm trying to get here," he said.
"It's a new generation," said Escher. Kids today benefit from the "big brother mentor coaching style," and players still need the authoritative style that Rienks and Holt bring to the team. Having coaches they trust will get them to run "not to the wall, but through the wall for you."
Based on football camp and summer weight training attendance, turnout looks promising, not only for football, but for the other sports, said Escher,
Escher and Rienks will focus on offense. They've worked together with the JV program, and want to keep that momentum going, said Escher. Rienks said he will remain with the program through the season to help with the transition. After that, he plans to follow son Dagan's football career at Colorado Mesa University.
Because the three young coaches are familiar with the program, the players and the area, there's no "awkward transition phase" for them or the players, said Rienks. Once players gain trust in their coaches, "The hard stuff is over."
A 1984 PHS graduate, Holt sees the younger coaches as bringing energy to the team and relating well to the players. "I think they're smart and they're hungry and they'll listen," said Holt. "They're knowledgeable, but they don't pretend to know everything. They're wanting advice."
Holt pointed to another PHS alum, Joel Simianer, a starting defensive player on both state championship Eagles football teams, as an example of graduates returning home to mentor young players. Simianer, who was recruited by Western State Colorado University, was at last week's camp working with the secondary.
"I think they appreciate the small town and appreciate what they have," said Holt.
High school sports practice officially begins Aug. 14. Paonia will open the season Sept. 1 at Center. Its home opener is Sept. 15, against Ridgeview Academy.