Mark Esch knew that one day, he'd returning to coaching, but even he was surprised at how much of a void there would be when he wasn't involved in high-school football.

"I enjoyed the year off," Esch said. "But I missed the competition, watching kids getting better and achieving goals. I missed being part of a coaching staff and being around the guys."

About 18 months after resigning as the football coach at Mankato West, Esch announced last week that he was joining the staff at Prior Lake as offensive coordinator.

"I didn't want to be a head coach at this point," Esch said. "I just felt this was the right position at the right time." 

Esch resigned at the end of the 2016 season, saying he'd been considering the move for two years. He told West activities director Brian Fell before the 2016 season that it would probably be his last.

In 11 seasons, Esch's teams went 107-22, winning six district or conference titles, making nine state-tournament appearances, reaching the semifinal round six times and claiming state championships in 2008 and 2014.

He stepped aside at a point where longtime assistant J.J. Helget could make an easy transition to head coach. There was no controversy or ill will.

"People want to think I had some problem with someone at West, but that wasn't the case," Esch said. "I was just done. There's no other way to explain it."

Esch was devoting more time to his family and building a business as an independent distributor for AdvoCare, which sells nutritional supplements and weight management products, and this move will allow him to expand his territory.

Esch said that sometime this summer, his family will move from Mankato, something that had been planned for about a year. He has a brother that lives in Prior Lake, and his wife Sarah has family in the metro area. The couple has three elementary-aged daughters.

"It's tough to leave Mankato," Esch said. "I have made a lot of great relationships here. But it's time to move on. It's good to be moving closer to family."

When Esch started looking for coaching opportunities, he ruled out schools that might someday compete against West. He met with Prior Lake coach Matt Gegenheimer, who had an opening on the staff. 

Prior Lake went 7-4 last season, winning two games in the Class AAAAAA playoffs, but averaged just 21.7 points. Esch's teams at West were known for prolific offenses, often averaging 40 points or more.

"We had a couple of meetings, and I really like the staff," Esch said. "They work hard. They want to do well. I think it will be a great fit." 

It still seems that Esch will be a head coach again. He'll only be 41 next month, and his business allows him the schedule flexibility to make that work. Plus, he clearly still has the desire, at a time when coaches are under increasing pressures from outside of the program.

"I've got that first-year excitement," he said. "It's going to be fun looking at the program and learning about the kids and seeing what I can add."

Chad Courrier is a Free Press staff writer. To contact him, call 507-344-6353, e-mail at or follow his Twitter feed @ChadCourrier.

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