Build it and they will come: Schmitt anxious to debut first year Prairieville High that can become centerpiece of growing community

by William Weathers // Contributor

Since his hiring as the school’s first football coach and athletic director Mike Schmitt envisioned what Prairieville High School would look like.

The sprawling new campus off Hwy. 92 and Parker Road, which was formerly a pasture, is home to the state’s newest school in Ascension Parish that expects to have an enrollment of 1,300 students.

Schmitt expects the smell of food being prepared at tailgates in the stadium’s lot to waft through the air, and a large contingent of blue-and-green clad fans (think Seattle Seahawks) on hand for Prairieville’s first home game Sept. 6 against Thrive Academy.

“There’s a ton of people excited in the community,” Schmitt said of Prairieville, whose population numbers are in excess of 34,000. “We get requests daily for season tickets.

“I would imagine it would be packed, I would imagine every seat (4,000) would be filled,” said Schmitt, who officially began Jan. 8. “We’re going to have a big band, the cheerleaders. It’s the beauty of Friday Night Lights.”

It’s been 21 years since Ascension Parish, one of the state’s fastest growing parishes with a population of more than 131,000 people, has opened a new high school.

Dutchtown opened north of I-10, bringing students from both St. Amant and East Ascension High Schools to the Geismar campus. It didn’t take the Griffins long to reach Class 5A status with a student body of more than 2,500 students and is regarded among the best academically in the state.

“I was on the committee (that selected Schmitt),” said Benny Saia, who was Dutchtown’s first coach where he served for 14 seasons. “I told them you have to check your ego at the door because it’s going to be two or three years before you see the fruits of your labor. It’s probably more challenging now than it was back then.

“You’re talking about 14-15-year-old kids playing 5A varsity football, that’s a challenge,” Saia said. “Physically you hope someone doesn’t get hurt. In baseball you get beat, you get your feelings hurt. In football, you could get broke. It’s a different sport.”

Prairieville is using the same template to Dutchtown, not only hiring the majority of its administrators such as principal Randy Loving from Dutchtown, but a great number of its teachers will reflect the incoming student body from the parish’s three 5A-sized schools.

“When you look at the population of Prairieville High School, we’re not spread out,” Schmitt said. “We are in the middle of this community. It’s a seven-mile radius and everybody’s coming here. It’s really the epicenter of Prairieville. That’s a cool thing.

“That’s what I’ve always wanted,” Schmitt said. “I’ve been around and coached in Colorado and Pennsylvania and both were great. When you coach at a school where the name of the school is the town, that’s special, like Zachary. I think people in this area are excited about having a community school.” 

Back home in Louisiana to build something special

Schmitt’s a former offensive lineman at Catholic High, starting his senior year but was injured for the 1990 state title game against Ruston. He attended Northwestern State where he earned both his undergraduate and master’s degrees, before embarking on a coaching career that’s taken him to different parts of Louisiana with stints in Colorado and Pennsylvania.

Because of Hurricane Katrina, Schmitt and his family were forced from the New Orleans area when he coached at Buras and spent one year as an assistant coach at East Ascension.

The trajectory of Schmitt’s career reached a zenith at Eaglecrest High in Centennial, Colorado where his teams qualified for the state playoffs nine times and won 63 games in his nine total seasons. He also coached for four years at Cowanesque Valley in Pennsylvania – his wife’s home state – for four years before returning to Colorado in 2022.

Schmitt’s team at Eaglecrest had earlier reached the pinnacle in ’17, advancing to the Class 5A state championship game where they lost in a shootout to Pomona (56-49) where the two teams combined for a state record 105 points.

He was voted the Colorado Preps 5A Coach of the Year and Denver Post’s All-Colorado Coach of the Year in ’16 and was chosen the District 4 Small Schools Coach of the Year in Pennsylvania in ’21.

Schmitt, who had previous stops at the now defunct Redemptorist in Baton Rouge as an assistant and head coach at Live Oak, was approached about the prospect of returning home to develop something from scratch.

He saw videos and architectural renderings of what was first proposed before the COVID pandemic hit in 2020. The parish’s growth, especially in the Prairieville area, necessitated a new high school to offset the potential for overcrowding and voters in the Prairieville area resoundingly passed a bond that would pay for a new school.

“The most intriguing thing to me was the start of a new school,” said Schmitt, whose career coaching record is 81-77. “I had been a coach that went into programs that hadn’t been successful and tried to turn them around. It was always fun for me to do that. To be able to come in and start something from scratch, not have to tear things down and break old habits. It’s challenging but refreshing.”

Saia, now retired, recalled the infancy stages at Dutchtown.

“You have no traditions,” he said. “Everything’s new and you get to establish that which is the fun part.”

Football’s only part of challenge

As the school’s athletic director Schmitt’s been charged with hiring head coaches, purchasing equipment and uniforms for all of the 22 sports the school will sponsor.

Not only has he managed to fill out his own coaching staff where former Parkway and Glenbrook Academy head coach David Feaster will be offensive coordinator and Austin Thomas will serve as defensive coordinator, Schmitt’s conducted interviews with like-minded people in other sports that are anxious to cultivate brand-new programs.

“The thing you have to do is have a vision,” he said. “We’re going to establish that vision of what we want. We want to make sure everyone follows that vision. They can contribute to it. We’ll be flexible and able to pivot.”

Prairieville features a 37,000-square foot, two-story fieldhouse with all the amenities overlooking the school’s new artificial-turfed football field. The building houses an extensive weight room that will be utilized by all sports with every sport having their own locker rooms along with a glistening training room.

There will be 120 lockers for varsity football players and four practice fields. The hardwood court in the newly constructed gymnasium’s finished for basketball and volleyball, and the baseball and softball fields have progressed accordingly toward their established deadlines.

“When I grew up you used to go to Prairieville to see friends and you were in the country,” Schmitt said. “We rode four-wheelers and hunted squirrels, lots of crazy stuff when you were a kid. It’s grown so rapidly and it’s still growing rapidly.

“Anytime you put a school in a community like that, it just solidifies it,” Schmitt said. “It stops becoming a growing area and a transient area and it becomes home. I want people to be able to move here that want to live here, that want to stay here, and it becomes home. That’s fun to do and that’s to help out people that have been watching this over the last five years.”

Strict timeline until kickoff

For students registered to attend Prairieville High this fall, there was a football tryout May 13 where coaches could work with them, but the offseason work for this year’s inaugural team commences May 28.

“We’ve got to come out ready to roll, getting everybody on board,” Schmitt. “We have some young coaches we’re bringing in.”

The melding of players from three different high schools, the majority of which will be sophomores and freshmen, into a cohesive unit will take time and without the benefit of spring training will require time to develop.

Schmitt can share his philosophy but won’t be able to start implementing schemes on offense and defense until getting a handle on the strength and weaknesses of his assembled talent.

“We’ll finalize our system so the coaches know what’s going on, so they can teach the kids what’s going on,” said Schmitt, who will oversee the weight room where players will be mixed with other players from adjoining schools wearing Prairieville High gear to start to build camaraderie. “We’re just going to be a young team. We’re going to have to be very good coaches and put them in the right spot.”

Schmitt and his staff are tasked with preparing a team in just over three months for its first official season on Sept. 6. The school opted to jump into the deep waters in Year 1 and will be a part of District 5-5A along with Dutchtown, St. Amant and East Ascension, Denham Springs, Live Oak and Walker instead of playing a junior varsity schedule like Dutchtown did for a year.

Because they weren’t able to conduct spring drills, the Hurricanes will get to start fall practice a week earlier than the Aug. 3 target date for schools that had spring drills.

“We’re excited about it,” Schmitt said of playing a varsity schedule. “It’s a great opportunity for a lot of kids, it’s a great opportunity for our coaches to have that ability to go play that Friday night at The Pit (at St. Amant). It is a challenge, but it’s also exciting. If we could make the playoffs, or one of our sports can make the playoffs, what a great opportunity that is to come out and do that from the get-go.”

Prairieville’s start is different of that of Dutchtown which didn’t draw many students from either St. Amant or East Ascension. The Griffins began developing with their incoming freshman class through freshman and junior varsity games for a year and following a 3-7 record in ’04, made the Class 4A playoffs and won their opening game against Peabody.

“By that time, we had guys that been in the weightroom and in our system,” Saia said. “From then on it was pretty good sailing for a while.”

Once offseason weightlifting commences after Memorial Day the process begins of piecing together the first Prairieville High team.

Schmitt, who likes the passing game but admits he’s unaware of who his quarterbacks will be, plans to have his team participating in 7-on-7 passing leagues that not only benefit the skill position players, but linebackers and defensive backs in coverage as well.

The summer’s unrelenting heat will further heighten the challenge of a first-year team’s summer program toiling in the weightroom and with outside conditioning.

With each passing day, with every week that goes by Prairieville’s focus will be getting ready for its first fall scrimmage, jamboree and home opener against Thrive.

“That first day (May 28) it’s like a mad dash and go,” said Schmitt, whose son Mike will be an incoming freshman this year. “You’re taking off in your race car and going. A lot of people don’t think about the humility and the kind of patience you’re going to have to have in the beginning.

“What I want when we go out on Friday night is we line up correctly, hustle, we play well,” Schmitt said. “There are going to be times where we line up perfectly and just get beat. That’s going to happen and that’s OK. We’re going to build it (Week 1) to be a big festivity of events. The win and loss will be the least thing people care about. They’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”