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High School Football: Verndale, Pillager, Pierz 1 win away from state tournament

Gage Kersten returns a kick against Staples-Motley Oct. 17. Kersten and the top-seeded Pillager Huskies will face No. 3 seeded Osakis in the Section 6-2A final Friday, Nov. 2 at the Fargodome. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

There is just one black mark on the Underwood Rockets' football season.

And that was put there by top-seeded and No. 3 ranked Verndale, which will look to add another as well as finish the Rockets' season 12:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2, at the Fargodome in the Section 4, Nine-Man final.

The No. 2-seeded Rockets enter the final 9-1 with that one loss a 28-0 defeat by Verndale Sept. 14. Since then, Underwood has rattled off seven straight wins, including a 12-6 section semifinal win over Wheaton/Herman-Norcross Oct. 27. Prior to that game, Underwood's closest game was a 20-14 victory over Brandon/Evansville. Otherwise, the Rockets have outscored their opponents an average of 35.9 to 10.4

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Verndale vs. Underwood

  • What: Section 4, Nine-Man Final
  • When: 12:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2
  • Where: Fargodome
  • Who: No. 1-seeded, third-ranked Verndale Pirates (10-0) vs. No. 2-seeded Underwood Rockets (9-1)
  • For what: Trip to Nine-Man State Tournament 7 p.m. Nov. 9 at Buffalo High School

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"I don't see much difference in what they're doing," Verndale head coach Mike Mahlen said. "They're a power-running team. They like to run the wishbone and the power wing. Every once in a while they'll spread it out with three or four wide receivers. They're always a physical team and tackle well and play good defense. They're a typical Underwood team that we've faced before."

The unbeaten Pirates have been more dominant outscoring their opponents 43.8-13.0. Verndale eliminated No. 8 Onamia 56-6 in the quarterfinals before downing Hancock 36-29 in the semifinals to reach its third-straight section final. The last time Verndale didn't make the finals was when Underwood topped it 30-22 in the 2015 semifinals.

One key to the Pirates' perfect record is giving up just seven turnovers before the semifinal game.

"Our defense has been playing very, very well all season long and credit for that goes to (defensive coordinator) Greg Johnson," Mahlen said. "He's done a super job with the defense. I hardly have anything to do with the defense anymore. I have my suggestions, but other than that I think Greg has done a super job. They're in position and they are where they are supposed to be. They are in the right spots."

Verndale has outgained opponents 3,229 yards to 1,643 and did it with a balanced attack.

Through Verndale's first nine wins, Jarret Kveton had rushed for 733 yards and six touchdowns. Matt Steege 636 yards and 12 touchdowns and fullback Craig Orlando 204 yards and four scores. Jake Ismil has 324 yards and four scores.

Quarterback Tate Bounds completed 55.6 percent of his passes (69-124) for 985 yards and 11 touchdowns.

His top targets have been Quinn Kern (27 catches for 304 yards and 3 TDs), Orlando (15 catches, 253 yards, 3 TDs), Brayden Vertina (7, 169, 1), Jackson Weniger (19, 159, 1) and Steege (7, 118, 2).

"We've got a little better running attack this year," Mahlen said. "The last couple of years we've been in the shotgun a lot with Mac Jones throwing and running the ball for us. This year we've gone back to the wishbone and power I. We still run some of the wing and slot like we did last year, but instead of doing it from the shotgun, Tate is behind center. That's the only difference with those formations.

"Tate has done a great job of throwing the ball this year. His throwing has improved immensely from last year. He worked on it in the offseason and did a lot of extra things to get better and he's gotten better. He's throwing the ball really well."

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Only four Quality Resorts Formula spots separate top-seeded Pillager from No. 3-seeded Osakis as the two head into the Section 6-2A final 3 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2, in Fargo.

Pillager, ranked seventh in the Class 2A poll, is ranked 14th in the QRF with Osakis sitting 18th. The Huskies own a 9-1 record and haven't lost since a 50-22 defeat by Ottertail Central Sept. 14. The Huskies' defense has only given up one touchdown in all but two of its wins, including a 26-6 victory over Staples-Motley in the section quarterfinals and a 28-7 win over Morris/Chokio-Alberta in the semifinals.

"We're keeping our defense very simple and they're in tune with what we're trying to have them do and we're really athletic," Pillager head coach Paul Peterson said. "We have some really athletic kids on the defensive line. They aren't your typical D-linemen. Jack Bentson, Spencer Schaefer, Ben Oie and Jarrett Hutchison are doing a great job. They keep the blockers off of our linebackers.

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Pillager vs. Osakis

  • What: Section 6-2A final
  • When: 3 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2
  • Where: Fargodome
  • Who: No. 1-seeded, seventh-ranked Pillager Huskies (9-1) vs. No. 3-seeded Osakis Silverstreaks (8-2)
  • For what: Trip to Class 2A State Tournament 7 p.m. Nov. 9 at Alexandria High School

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"We're really fortunate in that we don't have one really big leading tackler. We're doing a lot of team tackling and playing team defense."

Pillager has outscored opponents 39.4-13.9. While a throw-first team, Pillager has opened things up with the passing game as Erik Peterson has thrown for 1,087 yards and 16 touchdowns on 66 of 125 passing (.53 percent). The junior signal-caller has thrown six interceptions, but Pillager has a plus-13 turnover ratio.

When the Huskies are at their best, it means they are are running. This year Tucker Peterson has carried much of the load with 1,044 yards and 13 touchdowns on 119 carries. Luke Woidyla has 744 yards and 11 TDs on 116 carries. Hunter Gjovik has 344 yards and four scores on 41 carries. Junior fullback Bentson has rumbled for 286 yards and seven TDs on 60 carries.

Woidyla (11 catches, 208 yards, 2 TDs) and Tucker Peterson (16 catches, 276 yards, 5 TDs) are two of the top receivers with juniors Schaefer (13, 234, 5) and Cade Barrett (12, 174, 1) adding options.

"We've been a little more balanced than we have been in the past," Paul Peterson said. "The environment in the dome is different. It's faster and a little less forgiving. We're fortunate that we've played in it the last few years. The kids have a taste of what it's like.

"The kids are focused. They've been hoping they would get another shot to get back to the Fargodome and we have that shot and we'll focus on Osakis."

Osakis' two losses were a 49-0 defeat by Class 1A's second-ranked BOLD in Week Two and a 21-0 loss Oct. 12 to Minnewaska, which is playing in the Section 5-2A final.

The Silverstreaks are on a three-game winning streak and have outscored opponents 25.0 to 20.2. Among common opponents, Osakis beat Morris 14-6 and Wadena-Deer Creek 55-12.

"They're a good team that runs the ball hard," Paul Peterson said. "They've played a lot of close games that they've come out on top of. They're a good, well-coached team with some good players."

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After last season's 40-14 victory over New London-Spicer in the Section 6-3A final, Pierz defensive coordinator Dan Saehr said the Wildcats were going to be good next year.

It's next year and Saehr was right.

The top-seeded, top-ranked and defending state champion Pierz Pioneers will once again face the No. 2-seeded and seventh-ranked NL-S Wildcats in the Section 6-3A final 5:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2 at St. Cloud State University.

The unbeaten Pioneers (9-0) advanced to the final by eliminating No. 4 Melrose 50-13 Oct. 27. Pierz is outscoring its opponents 50.0 to 10.7 and hasn't lost since Nov. 19, 2016.

Pierz has won 12 straight section games.

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Pierz vs. New London-Spicer

  • What: Section 6-3A final
  • When: 5:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2
  • Where: St. Cloud State University
  • Who: No. 1-seeded, top-ranked Pierz Pioneers (9-0) vs. No. 2-seeded, seventh-ranked New London-Spicer Wildcats (9-1)
  • For what: Trip to Class 3A State Tournament 5 p.m. Nov. 10 at St. Cloud State University

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"You look at our roster and the guys who have played in this game last year and in a lot of big games, they won't get rattled," Pierz head coach Leo Pohlkamp said. "There is no panic. We just keep doing what we're doing. The kids are focused. They watch a lot of film and we'll coach them up and turn them loose and we'll see what happens. They know that New London-Spicer is very good. I just hope there is a big turnout and the game is a great game."

NL-S is riding a nine-game winning streak into the final. It opened with a 32-23 loss to Holy Family Catholic, but since then has been overpowering opponents on a 42.3-12.1 average.

The Wildcats eliminated St. Cloud Cathedral 54-12 in the quarterfinals before blanking Albany 27-0 Oct. 27. NL-S beat Albany 27-22 in the final week of the regular season, which gave the Wildcats a QRF ranking of 5. Pierz is ranked No. 6.

"The QRF just shows we have two good schools playing," Pohlkamp said. "They look like a small college playing high school football they're so big. They have a line that's averaging about 280 or 260 pounds. I asked myself if we have one guy that weighs 240 and we don't. Defensively, they're pretty quick.

"We saw them against Albany and Albany stayed with them the first game, but New London dominated the second game. I think Albany only had three first downs the whole game so (NL-S') defense is good. Offensively they can throw the ball.

"We have a lot of film on them and the more we watch the more we're impressed, but you know what? They have to stop us, too."

Reese Kapsner leads the Pioneers' running attack with 1,075 yards and 17 touchdowns on 94 carries (11.4 yards per carry).

Carter Moulzolf is averaging 10.2 yards per carry for 376 yards and two scores on just 37 attempts. Alex Gross has rushed for 321 yards and four scores and fullback Carson Huls has seven TDs and 145 yards on 30 carries.

Peter and Derek Schommer have shared the quarterback duties this season. Peter Schommer has thrown for 244 yards and three touchdowns on 15 of 28 passing while Derek has thrown for 213 yards and four TDS on 9-of-17 passing.

Preston Veith has six catches for 89 yards and three TDs. Matthias Algarin has 115 yards and a score on seven catches.

Kapsner has three catches for 85 yards and a score. Kapsner also has five interceptions.

"Our technique is going to be key," Pohlkamp said. "We've run up against bigger kids throughout the year and you have to get your head in there, swing your hips and seal them off.

"We haven't had to throw the ball when things are rolling. We just continue to do what we're doing, but in this game, we may need to throw the ball. I think we're capable of doing that. Both those Schommer boys have been rotating at quarterback. We'll have to throw some passes in this game, especially off of play action."

Luke Girtz leads the Pioneers with 53 tackles to go with four sacks and a blocked kick. Zach Traut has four sacks and Veith has 3.5 sacks.

Jeremy Millsop
My career at the Brainerd Dispatch began May 11, 1999 after graduating from North Dakota State University. My areas of emphasis includes local high school sports, Central Lakes College, the lakes area golf mecca and once a year I dabble in the NHRA when the Lucas Oil Nationals come to Brainerd International Raceway.
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