The Pierz Pioneers are either wicked good or will get their first real test 7 p.m. Friday when they face the fifth-ranked Eden Valley-Watkins Eagles.
This Central Minnesota Conference showdown has become an annual Class 2A marquee contest the last five seasons.
Since 2004, Pierz is 56-8 with a state title and two other state tournament appearances. Of Pierz's eight losses, three have come against EV-W. In that same time, the Eagles are 58-8 with a state title and three other state tournament appearances. Four of EV-W's losses have been thanks to Pierz.
Lately, however, it's been the Eagles who have gotten the upper hand. EV-W won last year's matchup 41-13. The year before, the Eagles won 18-7.
"We've been competitive with them the last couple of years," said Eagles head coach Ray Tri. "We've had some good dog fights with them. The thing is, we know each other so well. Their kids can probably run our playbook in their sleep. It's just a matter of what happens that particular night. We've gotten the upper hand the last few games, but had we played on a different night, the result would probably be different."
Pierz opened the season with a 41-0 victory over Hibbing and a 62-0 rout of Kimball. EV-W topped Pipestone Area 40-14 to open the season followed by a 35-6 win over Holdingford to set up Friday's matchup of unbeatens.
"Our competition has been pretty decent, but they've been young teams," said Tri. "We had to fight a little bit out there, but at this point in the season it's important to see where we are at and the only way to do that is to play a team like Pierz."
The eighth-ranked Pioneers rushed for 328 yards against Hibbing and 344 yards against Kimball. John Omann has led the charge with 163 yards and three touchdowns on just 12 carries (13.6 yards-per-carry average).
Fullback Cody Stangle had 105 yards and two touchdowns on just 13 carries. Eight different Pioneers have rushed for touchdowns.
"We have four or five different running backs," said Pierz head coach Leo Pohlkamp. "We have four of the five linemen returning from last year so we can run the ball."
The passing game is one area Pierz will need to improve. Through the first two games, Pierz has thrown for just 86 yards and one touchdown. Much of that has had do with the score and weather.
"We know we are going to have to run the ball 75 percent of the time because we do have so many good running backs and a good line," said Pohlkamp. "Our quarterbacks are going to have to be like a Brett Favre and just manage the game for us."
Pohlkamp is pleased with the defense, which gave up just 159 yards of offense against Hibbing, a 4A school, and 54 yards against Kimball. The Pioneers have picked off three passes and recovered five fumbles.
"One of the things we noticed in our loss to Breckenridge at the Fargodome last year was we couldn't keep up with them," said Pohlkamp. "This year we have really improved our team speed. Plus, our lineman have one year of experience and in high school football that is so important.
"But we haven't been tested yet. We'll get tested Friday night. We're going to find out how good we are. It's a rivalry game and there will be a huge crowd down there."
Improved team speed is what Tri has noticed about this year's Pioneers team. That, and an offensive line anchored by tackle Dylan Peterson.
Pohlkamp raved about the Eagles' team speed, especially wideouts Kevin Kramer and Ryan Tri and running back Ryan McCann.
"Last year their quarterback threw for 24 touchdowns and two interceptions," said Pohlkamp. "He's back. They are one heck of a football team. I would say they are a top five team in our class, if not higher."
Friday's game could just be a preview of a more important battle later in the season. EV-W is in Section 5-2A. Pierz is in Section 6-2A. Should both advance to state, which is a real possibility, those two sections meet in the state quarterfinals. It would be the third time these two programs have squared off in the state tournament in the last five years.
"We need to play a good team right now," said Pohlkamp. "Whoever wins, they'll win the conference, but this game will make us better. We have to be tested and not just play a half a game."
jeremy millsop, sports writer, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 855-5856.
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