DG Frederick High football practice 4

Frederick football coach Kevin Pirri has the Cadets playing in the state quarterfinals Friday at Franklin.

Kevin Pirri says he doesn’t look over his shoulder that often.

But there was a moment in the last two weeks that prompted him to pause and appreciate, at least for a fleeting moment, how far the Frederick High football program has come in his seven years as head coach.

It was the kind of little victory that Pirri has made it a point to celebrate and, in turn, helped lift the Cadets out of a funk on the gridiron that has stretched nearly two decades.

It prompted him to think, Wow.

On a Monday night following practice, Pirri was reviewing notes from the day when he noticed that everyone was accounted for on the daily attendance sheet.

It might seem like a trivial matter for most programs, but not for Frederick High football, which won its first playoff games since 2004.

“Especially so late in the season, Week 10 of the season, I don’t think I’ve ever had perfect attendance on that day,” Pirri, 31, said. “Especially in years past when we are 4-6 and 2-8 and 1-9 and have so many other things going on with homecoming at the end of the season and basketball coming up.

“My first year coaching [in 2015], there were kids quitting because there was a pep rally assembly that the seniors do. Kids were quitting to go do that. I was like, ‘But the pep rally is for the game. What are you guys doing?’”

Now the Cadets are 9-2 and preparing for Friday’s Class 3A state quarterfinal at three-time state champion Franklin (9-2) at 7 p.m.

Pirri said his players are walking the halls “almost like royalty” and are commanding the same sort of respect that Frederick’s girls basketball team received while it was winning three consecutive state titles from 2017-19.

“My kids are perfect attendance,” he said. “They are there. They are present. They are listening. They have finally bought in. They finally get it.”

Pirri has been as instrumental as anyone in bringing the program to this point.

He was thrust into the job suddenly as a 25-year-old when the program was at one of its lowest points. The Cadets had won three combined games over the two seasons prior to his arrival. The previous coach had stepped down abruptly for personal reasons but stayed on as an assistant.

“When I first started, kids weren’t proud to be football players,” Pirri said. “They weren’t excited. They played it because they enjoyed it. But they weren’t really in it for the whole community aspect.”

Pirri felt it was essential to establish a personal connection with his players to turn things around.

He showed up at youth football games and introduced himself to players, pointing to a bright future ahead at Frederick High, even when all recent history suggested otherwise.

He asked about them and their lives and offered to do anything he could to help them succeed on and off the field.

He wanted them to see he was an empathetic human and not just a football coach.

“When someone cares about you so much, you want to show them love back,” Brian Mbuthia, the team’s junior quarterback, said. “And I feel like our way of showing love back is giving him 100 percent on the field and bringing him back wins.”

While the task of rebuilding the program may have seemed overwhelming at first, Pirri broke the job into manageable chunks. He made it a priority to celebrate small accomplishments, such as producing more first downs than the previous week and more wins than the previous season.

“Kevin gives off a confidence. But it’s not a cocky confidence,” said former assistant coach Brandon Brewbaker, a Frederick High graduate who presently serves as the public-address announcer at games and a de facto team historian.

“Ever since he took over, the kids have been walking with their heads a little bit higher. And every year he has been there, as things have gotten better, their chins have gotten a bit higher because of his leadership. ... He’s made them realize that sometimes you are going to get smacked in the face, on and off the field. But it’s not about getting smacked in the face. It’s about what you are going to do next.”

The team’s progress has accelerated in recent years as better players have come into the program. In Pirri’s first three seasons, the Cadets finished 1-9. Then, they finished 4-6 in 2018 and 4-6 in 2019 and earned a spot in the expanded playoffs.

During the abbreviated spring season earlier this year, the Cadets finished 2-2, setting the stage for bigger and better things this fall.

“It means the world,” senior lineman Adam MoeZaw, a four-year varsity player, said of the Cadets’ first winning season since 2012. “We went from having 100 fans in the stands to having almost sold-out crowd and having a bunch of people here to support us.”

Many former players at Frederick have reached out to Pirri to lend their support, and there are some that serve on his staff.

Following a recent win over Oakdale, Brewbaker felt compelled to send him a postgame text.

“Thanks for not giving up on the kids and thanks for stepping in when no one else would,” the text read, according to Brewbaker. “As an alumni, it means a lot to me.”

Brewbaker added that the stands at games were now filled with alumni.

“That’s something we have not had in a while,” he said.

Follow Greg Swatek on Twitter: @greg_swatek

(1) comment

Bart Rowe

Amazing job by the coach and team

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