By BRAD SALMEN
After a season of overcoming obstacles, the Chargers have just one obstacle left in the march towards their first-ever state title.
It’s the biggest one yet, in the form of the Pierz Pioneers, their opponent in the Class 3A State Title game Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
To say the undefeated Pioneers are a daunting foe is an understatement. Pierz has been the top-rated team throughout the season, and breezed past their competition in nearly every single game this year.
In fact, the average score for all 13 of the Pioneers’ games is 44-9. They have five shutouts, and have given up more than two touchdowns only twice all season.
“Pierz really is solid all the way across the board,” said head coach Ryan Weinandt. Their guys are all very athletic and can fly around the field. The overall sense I get from them is they are talented at every position, disciplined, and very well-coached.”
The Pioneers are coached by first-year head coach Dan Saehr, who replaced Leo Pohlkamp after he retired last fall after 39 seasons with the program. Pohlkamp left as the 13th winningest coach in Minnesota State High School League football history, with a record of 276-84.
Pierz has made each of the last seven state tournament semifinals, winning a title in 2015. They also won in 2004. Last season, Pierz advanced as far as the 3A Semifinal game before losing to Rochester Lourdes.
The Pioneers have not skipped a beat under Saehr, who was Pohlkamp’s assistant for 17 seasons. They’ve had just two close games all season, winning 32-28 over Paynesville (ranked in Class 2A) in the second week of the season before coming from behind to defeat Jackson County Central in the 3A Semifinal game, 20-14.
“They like to run the ball, but can pass extremely well also,” said Weinandt. “Their top-four running backs average almost eight yards a carry. They have also been able to shut down most of the teams they have played this year defensively.”
Pierz is led on the ground by Mathias Algarin, who has committed to play for NCAA Division I Nebraska.
Algarin has rushed for 1,112 yards on just 124 carries, a 9.0 yards per carry average. He also has scored 21 touchdowns.
Blake Kowalczyk has 856 yards on 123 carries (7.0 ypc), with 18 touchdowns. Michael Leidenfrost (83-560-7, 6.7 ypc) and Carter Moutzolf (55-441-7, 8.0 ypc) also have seen significant carries in the backfield.
Pierz is helmed by quarterback Peter Schommer. Schommer has thrown for 1,158 yards, on 49 completions on 81 attempts (60% completion percentage). He has 13 passing touchdowns, to just four interceptions.
Algarin is the leading receiver, with 458 yards on 19 receptions (24.1 ypc), with five scores.
“[Algarin] is very fast and plays CB, RB, and WR,” said Weinandt. “He can turn the corner quickly and makes a lot of big plays.”
In the 3A semifinal win over Jackson County Central, the Pioneers came back from an early 14-0 deficit, including a long touchdown pass with under two minutes left, to defeat JCC 20-14.
Trailing 14-12 with the ball at the JCC 48 and 1:19 left on the clock, Schommer hooked up with Leidenfrost on a slant route.
Leidenfrost made two defensive backs miss, and found himself with wide open space for the score.
Leidenfrost then sealed the victory with a leaping interception.
“Their front D line gave Jackson County Central fits when they tried to pass, roll out, and really slowed JCC’s run game,” said Weinandt. “Their DB’s led by Algarin, move well in space and cover a lot of ground.
“It is what I would expect in a state championship game,” said Weinandt. “We need to keep improving and focus on playing our best game.”