Area Football: The keys to perfection

It all started 33 years ago. Pierz Pioneers head coach Leo Pohlkamp knows it takes players to win games, but having a coaching staff with more than 100 years of combined experience doesn't hurt. For Pohlkamp, who has been head coach at Pierz for ...

Pierz’s head coach Leo Pohlkamp talks to his team after winning the Class 3-A semifinals. (Steve Kohls, Brainerd Dispatch)
Pierz’s head coach Leo Pohlkamp talks to his team after winning the Class 3-A semifinals. (Steve Kohls, Brainerd Dispatch)

It all started 33 years ago.

Pierz Pioneers head coach Leo Pohlkamp knows it takes players to win games, but having a coaching staff with more than 100 years of combined experience doesn't hurt.

For Pohlkamp, who has been head coach at Pierz for 30 years, it started six years prior as an assistant to Steve Dooley. Rick Sczublewski - the only Pierz transplant on the coaching roster - started 33 years ago and he and Pohlkamp have been together ever since.

"I didn't have any doubt they would build this thing," said Dooley. "They just have a great connection with kids. They were able to build the numbers in the program. Certainly, Leo is an outstanding football mind. He studies the game and knows how to teach it.

"Leo was the same then as he is now. He's just a salt of the earth person. He's very humble and good with kids. The minute he stepped into his role (as an assistant) he brought a real understanding of the game."


Dooley left Pierz and ended up as the superintendent at Albany before retiring last year. He said he couldn't lose in the Class 3A quarterfinals when Pierz eliminated Albany 9-0 at St. Cloud State University.

"Either way I was going to be happy for whoever won," said Dooley. "It was a good game and I sat right on the 50-yard line."

Dooley also coached the Pierz girls basketball team with Sczublewski as one of his assistants. Sczublewski became the head coach when Dooley left.

"There's a guy who has just a great ability to connect with kids," Dooley said. "He brings enthusiasm to the coaching ranks. Rick and I spent a lot of time together and I have nothing but the highest regard for him and the work he did."

Offensive coordinator and line coach Dave Rocheleau has been on staff for 18 years. He played for Dooley and Pohlkamp before graduating in 1988.

Defensive coordinator Danny Saehr finished his 14th year on the staff.

Dean Dahmen returned this season. Dahmen was on the last state championship coaching staff as the defensive coordinator. With his three children grown, and now acting as managers for the varsity football team, he returned.

Scott Herold and Andy Leidenfrost returned and are both about five years removed from playing for Pohlkamp.


"That is such a big, big thing," said Pohlkamp. "We've been together for a long time. We run things by each other. I know that they know how I'm thinking. Dave was calling the (state championship) game and we were ahead 13-8 with a 1:28 left in the half. He looked at me and asked, 'Should we try to score?' and I said nope and he said, 'I know.'

"We wanted to go in with the halftime lead. We didn't want to air it out and have them pick it off. We did not want them to have any momentum. In high school, to go 80 yards with 1:28 is tough. We were deep in our zone and I just said no. Dave knew though. He wasn't going to sit there and argue about why not."

Pierz had a game plan. And when it comes to game planning nobody ate it up more than Pierz players. Pohlkamp said the reason the Pioneers finished 13-0, won the Section 5-3A title and then the Class 3A Prep Bowl was focus and staying the course.

"These kids have been in the state tournament, this was their third year," said Pohlkamp. "Staying focused every week in practice; I never had to get on the kids about not being ready to play.

"They were so prepared. And they kind of had a bull's-eye on their back. I don't know if bull's-eye is the right word, but they had high expectations because we had so much returning. They were able to stay focused because they had a goal in mind. A lot of kids do, but one reason I think we were able to overcome so many injuries was because our kids wanted it so bad."

Pierz was big. The Pioneers were fast. They were quick, but being prepared and learning quickly played key roles in Pierz's success.

Pierz's monster line

Brett Kapsner and Logan Stangl both moved from fullback to offensive guard this season. Even with the shortened preseason (two weeks instead of three), the two caught on quickly and impressed Rocheleau early in the season.


"I was pleasantly surprised," Rocheleau said. "After our July camp, I said these guys were ready to go. They were way ahead of where I thought they would be. Even with the early game and without the scrimmage, I was wondering how that was going to go.

"They did a tremendous job of getting themselves prepared for that game. We had four days of camp and after two days I told the other coaches these guys were ready to go."

Rocheleau and Pohlkamp said it helped having veteran seniors on both sides of the new linemen. Senior center Teddy Dehler returned from last year as did senior tackles Jackson Michaels and David Skiba.

As a team, Pierz rushed the ball 587 times for 3,566 yards or a 6.1-yards-per-carry average. Pierz scored 55 rushing touchdowns. Even Pohlkamp's 90-year-old mother, who attended the Prep Bowl Saturday, knew Pierz was going to run the football. Still few could stop the rushing attack.

"Everybody knows we are going to run the ball when we only pass five times a game," Rocheleau said. "The biggest thing, no matter what the defense throws at us, the kids have calls or assignments. Everybody knows we run off tackle. Teams try to stop it in a number of ways, but we have rules or assignments that are dictated by the snap of the ball and where the defense is lined up. That's what we go over day in and day out in practice.

"When we get rolling and kids start to recognize things in a hurry, that's when we really get going. Teams have thrown a dozen different ways to stop that and our kids have picked that up and done a great job with it."

Lane Girtz rushed for 1,046 yards and 14 touchdowns. Jonny Kasper rushed for 873 yards and 11 touchdowns. Noah Boser rushed 129 times for 587 yards and 15 touchdowns. Boser also passed the ball six times in the wildcat formation.

But the majority of the passing came from junior quarterback Aaron Weber, who threw for 1,037 yards and 14 touchdowns on 43-of-81 passing. He was intercepted just once.


How prepared was the offensive line? Before the state championship game, Rocheleau's comment to his line, which also includes tight ends Matt Kummet and Kolton Eischens was, "They can't show us anything that we haven't already seen this year."

Pohlkamp agreed. Through the regular season and section playoffs, Pierz saw numerous blitz and stunts and defensive game plans to stop its offense. Nothing worked. Pierz averaged 38.6 points a game.

"Teams have four-man, five-man and seven-man fronts," said Rocheleau. "They slam their defensive ends in and have their outside linebackers go outside. They'll slam their ends out and have their linebackers go inside. Teams will have both linebackers come through a hole. We didn't really prepare for defenses, but rather how a team is going to line up at the snap of the ball."

Rocheleau said in order to win a championship first you have to be really good and then you need a little luck. Pierz may not have needed the luck.

"The biggest strength, and it's like any team that goes far, you have to play as a team," said Rocheleau. "These kids didn't care, obviously, having two fullbacks move to linemen. They didn't care. They just wanted to win. They weren't the only two. Everybody played in that type of role, that type of team, not caring who did what.

"The other thing is these kids worked hard to get where they are at. They hit the weights in the offseason. You don't just show up in August and here you go. These kids prepared all year long and throughout the season just watching film and putting in the extra time that is needed to get you over the hump."

Dominating defense

At the news conference following Pierz's 36-8 thumping of Jackson County Central in the Prep Bowl, Pohlkamp's first words were Defense wins championships. Offense wins games."


Defense wins championships. Nobody bought into that more than the Pierz players themselves. Pierz allowed just one first-quarter touchdown and that was JCC's only score of the championship game. The JCC touchdown and two-point conversion handed Pierz its only deficit of the entire season.

In its three state tournament games, Pierz allowed just 14 points. Only Class 2A champion Caledonia allowed fewer. Pierz held opponents to 7.6 points per game and forced 23 turnovers.

"That's kind of because of one guy and that's Dan Saehr," said Pohlkamp. "He's closer to their age and he's out there coaching like he's one of them. But he's very knowledgeable. He gets so excited and pumped up. The first words out of his mouth are, 'They can't beat us if they don't score.' And the kids get so excited and jumping up and down. That's on a Monday.

"The ton of energy that those kids have they fed off of Dan. Danny is going all the time and he gets in the huddle and you think he's one of the kids."

Pierz's defense collected 40 sacks and pressured the quarterback 37 more times. Brett Kapsner led the Pioneers with 147 tackles. Girtz added 94. Big David Skiba, who every opposing coach talked nervously about, finished with 69. Boser posted 62 tackles, including a team-high eight in the Prep Bowl.

Michael Meyer led the Pioneers with 10 interceptions. As a team, Pierz finished with 23 picks and 16 fumble recoveries. Pierz players broke up 87 pass attempts.

"We had some big guys up front, but the kids behind them were all athletic and could run," said Pohlkamp. "Quickness and toughness are two ways to describe our kids."

JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at 218-855-5856 or . Follow on Twitter at .

Covering the Brainerd lakes area sports scene for the past 23 years.
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