State Football: A classic clash of 3A titans awaits at the Bank

There are the rankings. There is the history. And there is the setting, which are just a few of the reasons many will view the Class 3A state semifinal between the top-ranked and defending state champion Pierz Pioneers vs. the No. 2-ranked and 20...

Bill Johnson Picture Day Pro! Pierz's Alex Gross intercepts a pass against Annandale in the Class 3A state quarterfinals Nov. 17. The Pioneers scored a 60-12 victory.
Bill Johnson Picture Day Pro! Pierz's Alex Gross intercepts a pass against Annandale in the Class 3A state quarterfinals Nov. 17. The Pioneers scored a 60-12 victory.


There are the rankings.

There is the history.

And there is the setting, which are just a few of the reasons many will view the Class 3A state semifinal between the top-ranked and defending state champion Pierz Pioneers vs. the No. 2-ranked and 2016 state champion Rochester Lourdes Eagles as the title game.

The 3A brackets, however, didn't work that way so the winner of the 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17, tilt at U.S. Bank Stadium will have to win one more game in order to hoist the state title trophy. A championship would be the third time for either team in the last five years.


The 12-0 Eagles won the 2016 state title, which is sandwiched between two Pierz state titles. Rochester also won the 2014 state title, thanks to a crazy 25-24 overtime victory over Pierz in the state semifinals at St. Cloud State University.

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Class 3A state semifinal

  • Who: No. 1-ranked Pierz Pioneers (11-0) vs. No. 2-ranked Rochester Lourdes Eagles (12-0)
  • When: 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17
  • Where: U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
  • Next: Class 3A state championship, U.S. Bank Stadium, 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 24

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While no current Pioneers players were on the roster in 2014, it's still talked about as a missed state title opportunity for Pierz and one of the most difficult losses in Pioneers history.

After Pierz's Robbie Skiba scored in the first overtime to put Pierz up 24-17, the Eagles answered when Zach Hillman scored on a 2-yard run. Rochester Lourdes opted to go for the 2-point conversion and the win.

"We had the win (in 2014)," Pierz head coach Leo Pohlkamp said. "It was like our kids stopped because we had the kid stopped. That was the quickest thrill of victory to the agony of defeat I've ever seen.

"We didn't show that play during film study, but we did show that game because they're running the same thing. They're kind of like us. They don't change a lot from year to year. They're still running the same offense. They're still running the same defense. They're fundamentally sound. We didn't show them a lot of film. We showed them how they will line up and then go on from there."


Eagles' back Carter Greguson tried the middle of the Pioneers' defensive line, but was stopped. He wasn't down, though. Instead, he turned around and pitched the ball back out to Hillman who skirted the edge of a pile of bodies to score the winning two points.

Rochester went on to win the state title and Pierz suffered its only loss of the year.

"That game will always be talked about," Lourdes head coach Mike Kesler said. "I'm sure it's been brought up in Pierz just a few times this week. We asked the other day who was at that game and three-fourths of the kids were there in the stands watching it.

"I've never seen a finish like that for a high school football game ever. It was a crazy game. It was a battle back and forth the entire game. It ended weird and we just happened to come out on top, but it was a physical battle for four quarters and overtime. I'd expect the same kind of matchup Saturday."

Since the Pioneers moved into Class 3A in 2013, Pierz has advanced to six state tournaments. It has won two state titles and owns a six-year record of 66-7. In that same span, the Eagles own a 64-8 record with two state titles in five state tournament appearances. Of the 15 combined losses between the two teams, five came during the state tournament.

"Since about 2013, us, Pierz and St. Croix Lutheran have been the teams in 3A football," Kesler said. "We've only played them once. When it comes to 3A football, these two teams have seemed to have been on a collision course throughout the whole season.

"It's just a great opportunity to play such a great program like Pierz. We have a ton of respect for the coaching staff-a hall of fame coach. We can't say enough about what they do up there."

Pohlkamp, who is in his 33rd season, is 12th on the all-time wins list with 276 wins compared to just 83 losses. Kesler, who is enjoying his 14th season as head coach of the Eagles, had the 20th-best winning percentage in Minnesota to start the season at .7987 percent (123-31).


"This is going to be a dandy," Pohlkamp said. "It's two heavyweights fighting it out. They have to stop us and we have to stop them. Both teams throw the ball some. Their quarterback throws the ball about five or six times a game and sometimes that's what we do. They like to run the ball. They run the option well and establish their fullback early.

"This is going to be fun. The kids know Rochester has a great team."

This year's Eagles' team is about defense and a balanced offensive attack. Rochester has outrushed opponents 3,350 yards to 944. It's given up 1,036 passing yards, compared to passing for just 1,001 yards, but it's because it's built such big leads.

The Eagles have outscored opponents 37.2 to 7.3. After it's 24-0 shutout of Jordan in the state quarterfinals, Rochester has the fewest points-against average. Pierz is second allowing just 10.4 points while outscoring opponents with a 50.4 points-per-game average. Thanks to a 40-point second quarter in the state quarterfinal against Annandale, Pierz has now outscored opponents 355-58 in just the first half.

Lourdes has 18 starters back from last year's team that finished 9-3 and lost to St. Croix Lutheran in the state quarterfinals. The Eagles' starting defense has allowed just five touchdowns all season.

"Here is the thing. They haven't seen a power running team," Pohlkamp said of Rochester. "Most teams are spread out. They have three receivers over here. They have two over there. The film we have of Rochester, that's what they've played against. We're an old-fashioned power football team. I don't like calling us old fashioned, but we run out of the wishbone and a hammer set.

"But they have a big power fullback who is their leading rusher. We'll have to adjust to him, too."

The Eagles' offense is led by senior running back Jake Groteboer (6-foot-2, 225 pounds), who has 1,046 yards on 127 carries and has scored 13 touchdowns. Senior Pat Leary has rushed for 550 yards and eight scores on 80 carries. Senior Zach Jungels has 681 yards and 11 TDs on 91 carries.

Senior quarterback Matthew Hayford has thrown for 1,001 yards and 12 touchdowns on 45 of 83 passing. He's thrown just four interceptions.

Hayford's top targets have been Leary with 19 catches for 535 yards and seven TDs and senior wideout Julian Bretton who has 13 catches for 148 yards and a score.

"You can't say it's this guy or that guy," Kesler said. "We feel we have four kids who can run the ball. We have some wide receivers who are pretty athletic kids. Balance has been a key for us and we'll need it again on Saturday against a very good defense."

Pierz's offense has rumbled for 4,030 yards and 48 touchdowns on the ground. Reese Kapsner has 1,640 of those yards and 23 of those touchdowns. Fullback Carson Huls has 321 yards and 14 TDs. Matthias Algarin has 359 yards rushing and seven rushing touchdowns. He's also added a team-high eight catches for 182 yards and two more scores.

"We see some power running teams, but not as effective as (Pierz), especially this year," Kesler said. "We've seen a lot of different looks this year, but nothing like they're going to bring Saturday. Obviously, they offer a huge challenge in that they average about 50 points a game, or 60, or whatever it is. They put up so many points, I lost track.

"It's definitely a different animal. Our kids are excited about the challenge and hopefully we can give them a game."

Pierz's Alex Gross owns 377 yards and four scores on 70 carries, while backup fullback Blake Kowalczyk has five scores and 289 yards on 45 carries. The last two games, however, Kowalczyk and the rest of the Pierz backups have gotten a lot of unexpected playing time thanks to the Pioneers' 44-6 blowout of New London-Spicer in the Section 6-3A final and the big win against Annandale.

"You hope in the back of their mind that they are playing with confidence," Pohlkamp said. "We were a little concerned because New London had almost the whole team returning from last year. It's kind of like Lourdes is right now. All those kids played young and got an extra year of experience.

"After that New London game, I was worried about a letdown, but we always tell the kids, 'No matter how well you played, your next game is your most important.' With Annandale, nobody could run against them so you try to find new angles to get your kids to come and play. Now, they won't have a problem getting up for Rochester."

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