By PATRICK SLACK
The first meeting of the season between Holdingford and Pierz was a 12-7 defensive struggle and turned out to be the difference in the Central Minnesota Conference (CMC) title race.
The second showdown had even higher stakes and quickly evolved into a more high-scoring contest in Saturday’s Section 6AA semifinals.
After a back-and-forth first half resulted in a 21-21 tie at the break, host Holdingford utilized four second-half interceptions to break away for a 42-21 victory and a trip to the section finals.
“We talked as a coaching staff before the game and expected to be higher scoring than last time,” Holdingford head coach Luke Mitchell said. “But with both defenses being in the top two in the CMC, to have a 42-21 score was not anything we expected.”
Pierz took a 7-0 lead on the opening drive of the game, with senior Josh Lanners powering in from a yard out, but Holdingford evened the score when senior Taylor Milbrandt came down with a 78-yard touchdown reception later in the quarter.
Lanners scored again to give the Pioneers the lead back at 13-7, but Huskers senior Jon Skwira scored from a yard away and Milbrandt caught a 32-yard touchdown strike from junior Mitch Messman to give Holdingford a 21-13 advantage with 3:48 to play in the second quarter.
Just before halftime, though, Pierz junior Nathan Athman rushed for a 1-yard score and senior Ben Boser converted a two-point conversion pass to senior Jess Kasper to even the score at halftime.
Holdingford seized the lead back early in the third on a 2-yard touchdown run by Messman before coming through on both sides of the ball in the biggest sequence of the game.
With Pierz facing a third-and-short near midfield with the chance to once again answer a Huskers’ score, Holdingford senior Cody Schwinghammer jumped a route and picked off a pass.
“That was huge,” Mitchell said. “Cody has been a huge playmaker for us. He comes up with a lot of big plays. He was isolated on an island and jumped the route and made a great play. That gave us a little more comfort and gave us confidence.”
Holdingford then drove down inside the Pierz 5-yard line before a penalty backed the Huskers up for a third-and-goal from the 13.
Messman dropped back to pass as Schwinghammer worked his way open in the back of the end zone on a double move to haul in a touchdown with 14 seconds to play in the third quarter, taking the first two-possession lead of the game.
“It was a big confidence boost to have a two-touchdown lead,” Mitchell said. “We knew Pierz could put up points, so our players could take more of a deep breath, relax and get comfortable again. They’re a running team so it put them out of their comfort zone a bit and made them throw.”
Holdingford’s defense came up with three more stops in the fourth, with junior Cody Bialka sealing the win with a 27-yard interception return for a score with 17 seconds to play.
After rushing for only 20 yards in the first half, Holdingford’s offense broke through in the second half for 135 yards on the ground, with Messman paving the way.
“We threw pretty well in the first half while they were moved up in the box,” Mitchell said. “In the second half they dropped back to a cover two and were a lot looser against the run. Mitch Messman allows us to be balanced.”
“He’s had some phenomenal games throwing the ball, and his ability to run the ball gives us that dual threat that not a lot of teams have. He makes very good decisions. I trust him fully with the ball in his hands.”
Messman finished the night 11-of-15 passing for 236 yards and rushed for 90 yards on 20 attempts.
Milbrandt brought in a pair of passes for 110 yards, Schwinghammer had five receptions for 77 yards and Skwira compiled 49 rushing yards and 38 receiving yards.
Skwira led the Holdingford defense with eight solo tackles and three assists, while Schwinghammer intercepted two passes and Bialka and junior Jeremy Springer each picked off one pass.
Senior Kyle Kolstad was a perfect 6-for-6 on extra point attempts.
Lanners led Pierz on both sides of the ball, rushing for 170 yards while posting seven solo tackles and three assists.
Junior Tyler Millner had 22 receiving yards and Kasper and senior Brady Dorn each added 17.
Junior Andy Kapsner contributed three solo tackles and seven assists.
Second-seeded Holdingford advances to play fourth-seeded Upsala-Swanville Area (USA) in the Section 6AA finals at the Fargodome, Friday at 3 p.m.
USA won its semifinal game 45-14 at Crosby-Ironton.
Holdingford and USA squared off in last year’s opening round of the playoffs, with Holdingford winning 28-0.
“We’re putting last year behind us,” Mitchell said. “We’re two totally different teams, even though a lot of the personnel is the same. We were both pretty young last year and just the confidence level both teams are playing at is very different.”
Holdingford 42, Pierz 21
Pierz 7 14 0 0 – 21
Holdingford 7 14 14 7 – 42
PZ: Josh Lanners 1 run (Travis Johnson kick), 9:06.
HOLD: Taylor Milbrandt 78 pass from Mitch Messman (Kyle Kolstad kick), 3:24.
PZ: Lanners 2 run (kick failed), 11:22.
HOLD: Jon Skwira 1 run (Kolstad kick), 8:09.
HOLD: Milbrandt 32 pass from Messman (Kolstad kick), 3:48.
PZ: Nathan Athman 1 run (Jess Kasper pass from Ben Boser), 0:09.
HOLD: Messman 2 run (Kolstad kick), 7:16.
HOLD: Cody Schwinghammer 13 pass from Messman (Kolstad kick), 0:14.
HOLD: Cody Bialka 27 interception return (Kolstad), 0:17.
Pierz—Rushing: Josh Lanners, 24-170; Nathan Athman, 6-27; Tyler Millner, 6-19; Robbie Skiba, 2-8. Passing: Ben Boser, 7-22, 62. Receiving: Millner, 3-22; Jess Kasper, 2-17; Brady Dorn, 1-17; Skiba, 1-6. Defense: Lanners, 7 solo tackles, 3 assists; Andy Kapsner, 3 solo tackles, 7 assists.
Holdingford—Rushing: Mitch Messman, 20-90; Jon Skwira, 16-49; Cody Bialka, 3-11; Jordan Gombos, 1-3; Matt Messman, 2-2. Passing: Mitch Messman, 11-15, 236; Taylor Milbrandt, 1-1, 19. Receiving: Milbrandt, 2-110; Cody Schwinghammer, 5-77; Skwira, 3-38; Mitch Messman, 1-19; Bialka, 1-11; Defense: Skwira, 8 solo tackles, 3 assists; Milbrandt, 5 solo tackles, 1 assist; Bialka, 4 solo tackles, 2 assists, interception; Mitch Messman, 4 solo tackles, 2 assists; Taylor Nitz, 3 solo tackles, 1 assist, sack; Jeremy Springer, 3 solo tackles, 3 assists, interception; Cody Schwinghammer, 2 solo tackles, 3 assists, 2 interceptions.