By PATRICK SLACK
It’s the middle of September.
The Pierz football team is struggling, having just lost its first two conference games of the year.
A half dozen starters are out of the starting lineup with injuries.
And all Tomas Roquemen knows about the sport is that it somewhat resembles soccer, which he played growing up a continent away.
Fast forward six weeks.
Pierz is up 20-12 in the fourth quarter on the road against Section 5AAA’s top-seeded Foley, Oct. 26, in position for a knockout punch.
Out onto the field jogs Roquemen, lining up for a 29-yard field goal attempt that would make it a two-possession game with only eight minutes to play.
The snap is high, but sophomore holder Aaron Weber puts it down.
Roquemen strides forward and sends it through.
Pierz 23, Foley 12.
The score would hold, as Pierz secured one of its most unconventional trips to the section finals in program history.
Despite being on the road against the top seed and sixth-ranked team in the state, Pierz didn’t have the look of an underdog.
The Pioneers’ punishing ground attack allowed them to control the tempo in building a 14-0 lead behind a 1-yard touchdown plunge by senior Nathan Athman and a 64-yard breakaway run by senior Tyler Millner.
The change of pace between the power of Athman, who ran for 112 yards on 29 carries, and the speed of Millner, who racked up 157 yards on 18 attempts, allowed Pierz to move the ball effectively without completing a single pass.
“It’s tremendous,” Millner said. “Once we keep handing it to Athman they keep keying in the middle, and we do a play outside, and it’s usually a touchdown. Our line, they did phenomenal, just reading off each other’s blocks.”
Foley came back with two touchdowns of its own to close it to 14-12 in the opening minutes of the third quarter, the difference being two Roquemen extra points.
The Falcons couldn’t draw any closer, though, as the Pierz defense, which came up with four stops inside its own 30-yard line, clamped down the rest of the way.
Athman ran in his second touchdown from a yard away midway through the third quarter to make it 20-12, setting the stage for Roquemen’s clutch kick in the fourth.
The win moved Pierz into the Section 5AAA championship against third-seeded St. Cloud Cathedral, scheduled to be played Friday.
The Crusaders reached the finals by defeating sixth-seeded Milaca 15-12 and seventh-seeded Mora 53-14.
Pierz’ first-round win came by a score of 48-6 over fifth-seeded Pine City.
“We had a lot of injuries right at the beginning of the season,” Millner said. “We knew once everyone was healthy again we’d have a really good chance at winning the section.”
The winding path on which Pierz has won seven of eight games after its 1-2 start began, rather simply, with getting the bulk of its lineup back at full strength.
However, it also included the addition of a new kicker in Roquemen, a senior foreign exchange student from Colombia.
“I wanted to try football and they told me I could kick,” Roquemen said. “I didn’t know anything about American football. They had to teach me it all. I started practicing and I’m getting better every day.”
Roquemen connected on his only extra point attempt against Maple Lake, Oct. 16, then followed by going 6-for-6 against Pine City.
Roquemen’s nerves have lessened with each week that goes by, to the point that by the time he stepped onto the field for his clincher against Foley, his thoughts were simple.
“That we were going to win,” he said.
Roquemen has been able to share his newly-enjoyed success from Pierz with his parents – “They are really proud of me,” he said – but is finding a new adjustment slightly more challenging: the weather.
“He hates it,” Pierz head coach Leo Pohlkamp said. “He’s the one out here with a coat on. We usually have him kick for awhile and then have him go inside.”
The Pioneers hope that Roquemen has to endure one more week of kicking in the cold, though, as the winner of the Section 5AAA title will play the Section 7AAA champion, either Proctor or Esko, in the first round of the state tournament in Duluth, Friday at 7 p.m.
A win there, and the Pioneers would find themselves in a much more familiar place in November than they were in during September: the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
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