By PATRICK SLACK
Pierz had the lead and the ball late in the Section 5AAA championship game, Friday, but still plenty of reason to be nervous.
Facing a 3rd-and-9 from midfield and clinging to a 26-21 lead, going up against a pass-happy opponent in St. Cloud Cathedral, the Pioneers were trying to figure out how to drain the final 2:44 off the clock that separated them from the state tournament.
Pierz called a timeout and dialed up a running play … for its No. 4 back.
Sophomore Noah Boser, whose first touchdown of the season came seven minutes earlier, took the handoff on a counter, snuck through a cloud of defenders and was off to the races, scoring a 50-yard touchdown to seal a 32-21 win and Pierz’ second trip to state in three years, 10th overall.
“We had a timeout and I went out the huddle and told the guys ‘They will be keying on Nathan and Tyler, let’s run the counter to Noah,’ and told Noah just to trust the hole and hit it as fast as he could,” Pierz assistant coach and offensive coordinator Dave Rocheleau said.
“All year long we talked about running every play as if it will go for a touchdown,” he said. “I didn’t know if we could get a first down, but we definitely wanted the clock to keep moving, which is why we went with the run.”
It wasn’t much of a deviation from the gameplan for Pierz, which ran for 359 yards on 54 carries while attempting only one pass, keeping with the team’s season-long them of wearing opponents down on the ground.
“Teams can take away the middle, or off tackle, or outside, or the counters, but they can’t take away all of them on the same play so it is a chess match trying to get the right run play called,” Rocheleau said. “Give credit to our linemen, they see every front to blitz package possible and they do a great job of blocking it.”
Senior Tyler Millner was the leading rusher on the night, gaining 203 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries
Millner’s first score came on a 40-yard scamper that gave Pierz a 7-0 lead late in the first after the Pioneers made a pair of defensive stops in the red zone, including a one-handed interception by senior Mac Gruber, the first of his two picks on the night.
Cathedral bounced back midway through the second quarter, working the ball to the Pierz 1-yard line before scoring on its third quarterback sneak attempt, but failed to convert its ensuing two-point try.
The Pioneers had to give the ball back, but Gruber came through with his second interception to give Pierz the ball inside Cathedral territory, setting up a 14-yard touchdown rush by Millner to push the gap to 14-6 at halftime.
Cathedral had to punt on its first drive of the second half, but capitalized on a muffed punt, setting up a short field and a game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion.
The Pioneers answered by marching the ball the length of the field, regaining the lead on a 3-yard rush by Boser with 9:08 to play.
Cathedral had to punt after a three-and-out, with Millner sprinting free for his third score from 69 yards out on the first play of Pierz’ possession to extend the lead to 26-14 with under eight minutes remaining.
The Crusaders pulled within 26-21 with 4:11 left, before Boser’s breakaway run finally dashed Cathedral’s chances.
Boser finished the night with 78 yards on the ground, with senior Nathan Athman adding 48 and junior Robbie Skiba picking up 24.
Gruber also made eight solo tackles and assisted on five others, with Skiba recording five solo stops.
“Our team rose to the occasion tonight and beat a very good football team,” Pierz head coach Leo Pohlkamp said. “It was a true team effort.
“Offensively we made big plays and defensively we came up with several key stops, either on downs or with interceptions,” he said. “We are very proud of this team and how much they have improved.”
Pierz managed to contain the spread attack of Cathedral, holding the Crusaders to 219 yards through the air on 22-of-45 passing, with just 59 yards rushing.
Pierz enters the state tournament with a record of 8-3, and is scheduled to play 8-2 Proctor in the Class AAA quarterfinals at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Friday at 7 p.m.
With a win, the Pioneers would advance to the semifinals at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Saturday, Nov. 16 at 2 p.m., to play the winner between Glencoe-Silver Lake and St. Croix Lutheran.
Pierz 32, St. Cloud Cathedral 21
Pierz 7 7 0 18 – 32
Foley 0 6 8 7 – 21
PZ: Tyler Millner 40 run (Tomas Roquemen kick), 2:44.
SCC: Fasching 1 run (run failed), 6:37.
PZ: Millner 14 run (Roquemen kick), 2:03.
SCC: Auger 6 pass from Fasching (Spaniol pass from Fasching), 5:23.
PZ: Noah Boser 3 run (kick blocked), 9:08.
PZ: Millner 69 run (run failed), 7:47.
SCC: Yoerg 10 pass from Fasching (Addison kick), 4:11.
PZ: Boser 50 run (kick blocked), 2:36.
Pierz—Rushing: Tyler Millner: 22-203; Noah Boser: 5-78; Nathan Athman: 17-48; Robbie Skiba: 6-24; Ethan Lochner: 1-12; Jonny Kasper: 2-7. Passing: Lochner: 1-1, 0. Defense: Mac Gruber: 8 solo tackled, 5 assists, 2 interceptions; Skiba: 5 solo tackles, 4 assists.
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