Two top-ranked defenses will square off Saturday when the Pierz Pioneers face the Proctor Rails in the Class 3A state quarterfinals at Brainerd High School.
Pierz, ranked No. 2 in the Quality Results Formula, is allowing a Class 3A-best 6.7 points per game. That includes last week's 40-14 blowout of New London-Spicer in the Section 6-3A title game. That victory improved Pierz to 10-0 and advanced it to its fifth straight state tournament and 14th trip in program history.
"What we see on film with Pierz is a big, strong team that's well coached," said Proctor head coach Derek Parendo. "They're well disciplined. They don't run many different plays, but the plays they do run are well executed.
"We're very similar. I think these two teams are very similar in that we lean on our defenses a whole bunch. I think the offenses' goal is to get three scores on the board and if you can get three scores it's going to be tough to beat either one of these teams."
Pierz's defense will look to stymie Proctor's rushing attack of John Pioro (769 yards and eight TDs) and Jerid Parrott (623 yards and five TDs).
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Pierz vs. Proctor
- What: Class 3A state quarterfinals
- When: 3 p.m. Saturday
- Where: Brainerd High School
- Who: Pierz Pioneers (10-0) vs. Proctor Rails (8-2)
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Pioro has thrown for 618 yards with seven TDs on just 43 of 93 attempts. Blake Koski and Cody Hampton both have 12 receptions. Koski has four TDs and 254 yards, while Hampton owns one score and 100 yards.
"Their quarterback, he keeps it on sneaks, he runs wide, he runs it off tackle a lot," said Pierz head coach Leo Pohlkamp. "There's nothing fancy about it."
Proctor's starting defense has allowed just nine touchdowns this season and has pitched three shutouts. Kaleb Stevens, who is fourth on the Rails with 72 tackles, has a school-record 23 career sacks. Brett Bower leads Proctor with 92 tackles.
"Our defense starts with our defensive coordinator Jeff Gunderson, who comes up with a wonderful game plan every week," Parendo said. "Then we have some really good athletes on there, too. Kaleb Stevens, our defensive tackle, is a Division I, Division II recruit. He's been looked at by North Dakota, North Dakota State and schools like that. He's had offers from several Division II schools.
"Then we have Brett Bower, who is a junior back there, and he's got five interceptions this year. Lucas Nordquist is a senior with four picks. We just have some athletes out there that are well coached."
The Rails have allowed just 811 yards rushing and 480 yards passing.
After a 22-6 loss to Cloquet Oct. 6, the Rails blanked Hermantown, defeated North Branch and knocked off Two Harbors and No. 1-seeded Esko 24-14 in the Section 7-3A playoffs.
"What they do play is good defense," said Pohlkamp. "That's their trademark. It will be the best defense that we have seen all year. I'm hoping (Pierz defensive coordinator) Danny Saehr can come up with a way to shut these guys out and hopefully we can score some points. They tackle well.
"It's one of those where I like our chances. Our offensive line is playing well and blocking well. We're healthy."
The last time a Section 7-3A team won a state football game was in 2013 when Proctor upset Pierz 19-6 at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
"Over the past few years, northeast football hasn't been the strongest football in comparison to central Minnesota," Parendo said. "But over the last few times we've been to state we've won a state football game. We lost to St. Croix Lutheran, which has probably been the best team over the last seven, or eight years, by three points. We put 400 yards on a very good Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton team a few years ago in the state tournament.
"We are finding that we are able to play with some of the best programs in the state. We just need to be a little bit more consistent to win a few more of those games instead of losing the close ones."
This season Pierz is led by a multi-headed running attack of Jalen Jansen (693 yards and 13 TDs), Reese Kapsner (669 yards and 10 TDs), fullback Carson Huls (489 yards and nine TDs) and Luke Girtz.
Pierz senior quarterback Preston Rocheleau has only attempted 52 passes all season. He's completed 28 of those for 448 yards and six TDs. Ben Herold leads the Pioneers with 15 receptions for 314 yards and two scores. Cohlton Boser has six catches for 109 yards and two TDs.
"We don't have any stars on this team, but they're all very good," Pohlkamp said. "We're solid on defense. I think we might be leading the state, we're giving up about seven points a game. Then offensively, we're averaging about 40. We're able to run the ball because all of our linemen are very experienced. We can go right up the middle. We can go left. We can go right. We're very balanced, whereas some years you favor one side or the other.
"At running back, who do you key on? We don't even know who is going to carry the ball that much. This is just a balanced team and they're all pretty good."