In the Minnesota State High School League football yearbook, Perham and Pierz are right next to each other alphabetically.
And despite being in a combined 24 state tournaments, including 12 in the last 10 years, the Pierz Pioneers and Perham Yellowjackets have never faced each other on the football field.
That fact will change noon, Saturday, Nov. 9, in Alexandria when the top-ranked and unbeaten Pioneers face the Section 8-3A Champion Yellowjackets in the Class 3A State Quarterfinal.
“We’re excited to be playing at a new field,” said Pierz head coach Danny Saehr. “Of course, you would like to be playing closer to home, but when you’re playing in the state tournament you don’t complain about where you are playing. We’ve heard nothing but good things about that field. We’re excited. The kids know what is dangling out there. If you win this game you’re playing indoors the rest of the season. Our kids are excited. “It’s a noon game on a Saturday so it will have that college type feel. It should be a lot of fun.”
Despite the unfamiliarity with each other, there are two common threads between these two teams. One of Perham’s losses came against Pequot Lakes in week seven of the regular season. Pierz and Pequot Lakes battle during a preseason scrimmage.
“We take a little bit from that Pequot game because we had an idea of what Pequot was like,” Saehr said. “Granted it was just for 30 some plays, but that’s the only comparison we have. They don’t play anybody we play so it’s hard to look at schedules and that. And, to be honest, it was so far back teams change personal and sometimes schemes.
“Our biggest thing is we watch film and try to see what they’re really good at and hopefully find some things we can take advantage of on both sides of the ball.”
Perham avenged that earlier loss to Pequot by knocking them out of the section playoffs 14-3 in the semifinal round. Another of Perham’s regular-season losses was to Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton. And again the Yellowjackets redeemed themselves with a 21-20 victory over the Rebels in the section final.
Another thread of familiarity is with Perham head coach Kyle Knutson.
During the 2003 Section 8-2A Final, Pierz defeated Frazee, which was then coached by Knutson. Pierz won that game 49-7 before falling to Breck in the state semifinals.
“We’ve been telling the kids that you get to this point in the season and everyone is good,” Knutson said. “To win it all you have to beat everybody anyways so we don’t put a whole lot into rankings or how some of the websites out there are making predictions. We were the underdogs against Dilworth, but if we just focus on what we do, and if we do it well, the better team will win.”
Perham is led by sophomore quarterback Colton Hackel. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound QB has rushed for 1,076 yard and 12 touchdowns and has thrown for 1,477 yards and 18 TDs on 91-of-172 pasing. He’s only been picked off four times.
“He’s doing good,” Knutson said. “He’s young and he’s been learning every game over the course of the season. It’s just nice to see his improvement from day to day and from game to game.”
Dawson Kellog has rushed for 617 yards and nine TDs followed by Finn Diggins with 350 yards and four scores.
Hackel’s top targets have been junior wideout Noah Rooney with 45 receptions for 656 yards and eight scores and Diggins with 557 yards and six TDs on 36 receptions.
Hackel is the team’s kicker and punter.
“They are very athletic,” Saehr said. “They’ll spread the ball to run as well as to pass. Their quarterback is a stud. He’s only a sophomore, but he runs the ball. He passes the ball. He can scramble. He’s a load. He’s a big part of that offense, but they are very well coached. You can tell by their scheme. They do some things that are college level. It’s definitely made it a fun week to prepare for them.”
Perham has outscored opponents 35.8 points per game to 21.3. Pierz has held opponents to 7.6 points per game while racking up 44.8 points per outing.
Matthias Algarin, who committed to Nebraska for both football and track and field this week, leads the team with 949 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns on 91 carries. He’s also caught 16 passes for 416 yards and five more scores.
“I know he’s a very explosive, fast, powerful runner who scores a lot of touchdowns so he’s obviously a main concern of ours,” Knutson said.
Fullback Blake Kowalczyk has 682 rushing yards and 16 scores on 93 carries and Michael Leidenfrost has rushed for 416 yards and six TDs on 68 carries.
Peter Schommer is 39-of-67 passing for 964 yards and 10 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions.
“We’re still watching a lot of film on them and it’s interesting to see how they lineup against power sets and against spread sets,” Saehr said. “We’re going to try to do a little of both. We’re going to do what we do all the time and that’s just take what teams give us. We feel like we have an idea on how they are going to lineup, but some of that might be an in-game adjustment as well.”
Leidenfrost is second on the team with seven receptions for 87 yards.
The junior also leads the team with 73 tackles to go with two fumble recoveries and five interceptions.
Pierz has outscored opponents 344 to 35 in the first half.
This is Pierz’s seventh straight state tournament. They are 5-1 in state quarterfinal games in that stretch. The Pioneers’ last quarterfinal loss was to Proctor in 2013 in Duluth.
What: Class 3A State Quarterfinal
Who: Pierz Pioneers (11-0) vs. Perham Yellowjackets (8-3)
When: Noon, Saturday, Nov. 9
Where: Alexandria High School
At stake: Winner will face the winner of Waseca and Jackson County Central 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16 at U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis