By PATRICK SLACK
Senior Mac Gruber started the fall as Pierz’ starting quarterback.
With the Pioneers in their first season up a class against bigger schools, and given that the offense seldom passes, though, the decision was made to make Gruber solely a one-way player on defense.
The coaching staff shifted him from outside to inside linebacker, where he thrived, helping turn around a 1-2 start to the season and help Pierz reach the Section 5AAA finals, Nov. 1.
And then, Gruber turned in perhaps the performance of his life.
Gruber made a one-handed interception to stymie a St. Cloud Cathedral drive in the red zone, another pick to set up a Pierz touchdown late in the first half and eight solo tackles.
“It felt very good,” Gruber said. “Coach Saehr said that if we could pick off some balls it would be a game changer. That’s what my goal was and it felt awesome. I knew that it helped the team out a lot.”
Added all up, Gruber’s defense helped tilt the scale to give the Pioneers a 32-21 victory and a trip to what in September seemed like a very unlikely destination: the state tournament.
“I don’t think anybody thought that we would have ever made it this far,” Gruber said. “We knew that when all of our guys that were hurt came back we would be dangerous.
“We knew that if we wanted to make it in the playoffs we needed to work as a team,” he said. “Our goal was to work hard and be a team that nobody wanted to play come playoff time.”
“We wanted to get as many guys going one way as we could, so we thought this was the best option,” Pierz assistant coach and defensive coordinator Dan Saehr said. “Mac has really stepped up on defense for us and has been a big-time playmaker.
“We moved Mac from outside linebacker to inside linebacker and he’s been a leader for us on the defensive side of the ball since,” he said. “Mac played an outstanding game Friday night. (Cathedral quarterback Jeff) Fasching is one of the best quarterbacks in the area and Mac picked off two of his passes, plus had 12 tackles. We always challenge our kids to step up in big games and he definitely has been doing this.”
Long road back worth it
When Andy Kapsner went down with an injury during the second week of preseason practices, it looked like the standout linebacker wouldn’t get to suit up at all his senior season.
But thanks to the deep postseason run his teammates put together in his absence, Kapsner got back on the field for the section finals, making one solo tackle and assisting on two others.
“Having Andy back is really big for us,” Saehr said. “Andy has been our vocal leader all year for this team, even though he wasn’t able to play until last week.
“His experience, energy and passion for which he plays the game is very valuable to this team,” he said. “Andy loves the game of football, and will give you everything he’s got. We are very excited to have him back.”
The Class AAA field
Pierz (8-3) plays Proctor (8-2) in a match-up of unranked teams in the top of the Class AAA bracket, while No. 2 Glencoe-Silver Lake (8-2) plays No. 5 St. Croix Lutheran (8-2).
In the bottom half of the bracket, No. 10 New London-Spicer (8-2) plays unranked Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (8-2), while No. 1 Rochester Lourdes (9-1) plays No. 9 Fairmont (8-2).