ST. CLOUD — Mac Gruber hesitated when asked if he thought his Pierz Pioneers could do what they did Friday.
And who could blame him. With losses to Holdingford and Howard Lake-Waverly, Pierz was struggling.
Injuries depleted one of the state’s already smaller Class 3A schools. A lack of a passing game also hindered Pierz’s run into the Section 5-3A playoffs as they were beaten by Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa.
But then injured players started coming back. Pierz accepted their run heavy identity and it carried them to a 32-21 Section 5-3A championship over the St. Cloud Cathedral Crusaders.
Tyler Millner rushed for 188 yard and three touchdowns, including a 69-yard burst that turned out to be the eventual game winner.
“I was a little worried the guy was going to catch me,” said Millner. “I was looking back. I had my arm out just in case, but I got to the corner just in time and that’s when I really started kicking it down. When I made the corner all I saw was open field and all I could think of was run. That’s where my track experience paid off.”
Millner scored on runs of 40 and 14 in the first half to hand Pierz a 14-6 halftime edge.
Pierz gained 352 yards rushing and none in the air to eliminate the third-seeded Crusaders.
“Our line is phenomenal,” said Millner. “We work in pairs. If one guy can’t get to a guy the other guy does and that just opens up the holes. I have to give all the credit to our line. We run hard, but our line deserves everything.”
Nathan Athman gained 48 yards and Noah Boser added 75 yards and two scores, including a 51-yard burst that gave Pierz breathing room.
“He was awesome out there,” Millner said of Boser. “We did a fake where they would fake it to me and no one knew he had the ball. They thought they were going to give it to me in the situation we were in and he just burst through and took it all the way.”
Pierz’s defense had the daunting task of handling one of the state’s most potent throwing offenses and played admirably. They held Crusaders quarterback Jeff Fasching to 21-of-42 passing for 236 yards. Fasching did throw for two touchdowns and rushed in another.
“Their quarterback was an awesome player with a good arm,” said Gruber. “We just needed to get our defensive backs back there to knock down throws and get to any interceptions we could.
In the first half Gruber was the hero as he picked off Fasching twice on passes he didn’t even see until the final second.
“On the first one I just turned around and the ball was there,” said Gruber. “I just put my hand out and I was there and I was actually surprised. The second one was pretty much the same thing.”
Pierz wasn’t without its miscues. A bad snap on a punt set up the Crusaders first touchdown — a one-yard dive over the goal line by Fasching. A muffed punt in the second half set up Cathedral’s second TD, a 6-yard pass from Fasching that tied the game at 14-14.
That’s when Pierz rattled off an 18-play, 80-yard drive that Boser finished off with his first touchdown run.
“We had hope for this team, but I don’t think anybody expected us to get this far,” said Gruber. “We just had to keep going and keep fighting. Anything can happen in the playoffs.”
Pierz is going to the state tournament after a year absence and for the first time as a class 3A school. Pierz’s last few state tournaments were as a Class 2A team.
“We knew once we had everyone healthy again we could be in a possession like this,” said Millner. “We just to get everyone healthy and everyone on the same page.”
Pierz 7 7 0 18 — 32
Cathedral 0 6 8 8 — 22
Prz-Tyler Millner 40 run (Tomas Roquemen kick) 2:44
SCC-Jeff Fasching 1 run (run failed) 6:37
Prz-Millner 14 run (Roquemen kick) 2:03
SCC-Tommy Auger 6 pass from Fasching (Jake Spaniol pass from Fasching) 5:23
Prz-Noah Boser 3 run (kick failed) 9:08
Prz-Millner 69 run (run failed) 7:47
SCC-Brady Yoerg 10 pass from Fasching (Brady Schmidt kick) 4:11
Prz-Boser 51 run (kick failed) 2:36
Rushes-yards: Prz 54-352, SCC 18-75
Pass comp-att-int-yds: Prz 1-1-0-0, SCC 21-42-2-236
Total offense: Prz 55-352, SCC 60-311
Rushing: Prz-Tyler Millner 24-188, Nathan Athman 16-48, Robbie Skiba 6-24, Jonny Kapser 2-6, Ethan Lochner, Noah Boser 4-75; SCC-Thomas Imholte 7-40, Jeff Fasching 9-22, Jake Spanil 1-10, Nick Manthey 1-3
Passing: Prz-Lochner 1-1-0; SCC-Fasching 21-42-236
Receiving: Prz-Millner 1-0; SCC-Manthey 1-3, Brady Yoerg 11-142, Jake Spaniol 4-39, Tommy Auger 4-48, Brady Schmidt 1-11