Football: Dain Mangnall, an assistant from original staff, takes over head job at Cherokee Trail

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Dain Mangnall, the coordinator for a strong Cherokee Trail defense for 13 seasons, has been selected as the new head football coach. Mangnall worked with former head coach Monte Thelen with the program since the school opened in 2003. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)
Dain Mangnall, the coordinator for a strong Cherokee Trail defense for 13 seasons, has been selected as the new head football coach. Mangnall worked with former head coach Monte Thelen with the program since the school opened in 2003. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

AURORA | Despite changing head coaches, the Cherokee Trail football program will maintain a lot of the continuity that has helped it evolve into one of the state’s traditionally competitive programs.

Though the Cougars lost the only head football coach in school history when Monte Thelen stepped down in November, their new leader has been around just as long as longtime defensive coordinator Dain Mangnall — part of the Thelen’s original staff — emerged from a large group of candidates to take over.

Cherokee Trail new head football coach Dain Mangnall. (Photo from CCSD website)
Cherokee Trail new head football coach Dain Mangnall. (Photo from CCSD website)

Cherokee Trail athletic director Steve Carpenter announced the hiring on Friday and Mangnall has wasted little time getting to work.

“I’m super excited, this is a great opportunity and I’m humbled and just absolutely excited to have an opportunity to continue the tradition that Coach Thelen established,” Mangnall told the Sentinel. “We’re already at work and moving in the right direction, so hopefully we’ll get back to the elite level that we are used to.”

Thelen guided the Cherokee Trail program all way from the early days when the majority of the players weighed less than 100 pounds through a stint in the 3A Denver Metro League, then the 4A Skyline League — where the Cougars lost a 6-0 overtime contest to Monarch for a chance to play for the state championship in 2007 — and then the next season into 5A and the Centennial League, where the program became relevant quickly.

Cherokee Trail made the 5A state championship game in 2012 where it lost a 9-0 decision to Heisman Trophy finalist Christian McCaffrey and Valor Christian and lost again to the Eagles in the semifinals in 2013.

Thelen amassed a 89-48 overall record and 11 state playoff appearances in 12 seasons, but an 8-12 combined mark over the past two seasons and a pair of 5A first round playoff exits — including a 19-14 loss to Heritage this season — caused Thelen to arrive at the conclusion that the program needed to move in another direction.

Part of the reason Thelen believed the program developed success was because of its rare continuity, particularly in the coaching staff, which included Mangnall from the very start.

“We don’t plan wholesale changes, it’s been a successful program for 13 years under Coach Thelen and I’m looking to continue those traditions,” Mangnall said. “I have the ultimate respect for Coach Thelen, he gave me my first job and I’ve been with him for 17 years. He taught me everything I know.”

One of the coaches Mangnall will have to hire is a defensive coordinator, which is the role he’s filled in his tenure with the program.

In large part, the identity of the Cherokee Trail program has been about defense, as the Cougars have fielded some of the stingiest defensive units in the state for quite some time. With extra responsibilities

“It’s been my baby for 13 years and CT is definitely known for its defense,” Mangnall said of a unit that has produced numerous college players, including current University of Colorado safety Evan White.

“I’m definitely proud of what we’ve accomplished,” he added. “It’s going to be a little different not being as hands on, but I’m sure I will find a capable defensive coordinator and I’ll keep a watchful eye on the defense.”

Cherokee Trail’s offense suffered massive losses to injury last season, but has the returning talent to rebound in quarterback Conner Nantkes — who missed much of last season with a broken arm — wide receiver KJ Sapp, running back Max Gonzales and Ruben Estrada on the offensive line.

Mangnall is also encouraged by the talent that will be up and coming, as the junior varsity team lost just one game this past season. He is eager to work with feeder teams in the area to make sure players who should come to Cherokee Trail don’t go elsewhere.

The landscape will be different next season as a waterfall style realignment based on RPI will break up the powerhouse Centennial League — which includes the past four 5A state champions in Valor Christian (three times) and Cherry Creek, along with semifinal regular Grandview, Overland and Eaglecrest.

The Cougars — ranked No. 10 in RPI over the past two years — appear to be headed into a conference that includes 5A runner-up Pomona, Chaparral, Mountain Vista, Rock Canyon and Hinkley.

“It’s been and we’ve played a lot of good football teams in the Centennial League,” Mangnall said. “I have a lot of respect for the teams that were in our league for the last two-year cycle and I’m looking forward to the next two years with some new teams.”

As he stepped down from the job, Thelen anticipated that Cherokee Trail would rise to prominence again in short order.

“It’s a great place full of really good kids and really good coaches and I’m sure the program is going to be back very, very quickly,” Thelen told the Sentinel in November. “We’ve got a pretty good standard that we’ve set there and I certainly am proud of it.”

Notes: So far, Cherokee Trail had the only coaching vacancy among Aurora programs since the end of the 2015 season, a quiet period thus far in comparison to last offseason, when five new coaches came aboard. With 11 seasons under his belt, Grandview’s John Schultz is the longest tenured football coach.

Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel