JACKSON -- A reporter joked with Jackson County Central football coach Tom Schuller, saying that his Huskies are probably two-touchdown favorites against Pierz today.
“I don’t think Pierz has been an underdog in the last 10 years,” Schuller laughed.
There are no official odds for the Minnesota Class AAA state semifinal between JCC and Pierz -- just the usual excitement associated with a truly intriguing matchup between programs with long histories of success. Both teams are unbeaten. Pierz is ranked No. 1 in the state and JCC is ranked No. 2, and something’s gotta give when the squads meet at 4:30 p.m. this weekend at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis for a berth in the state championship.
Jackson County Central defeated Waseca 31-21 in the state quarterfinals at Lakeville High School last weekend, and Pierz took care of Perham 58-16.
“We thought Waseca was fast, and they were,” said Schuller. “Perham has a kid who runs 4.3, and that’s NFL speed. And you give guys like that a head of steam, and it turns into a touchdown in a hurry.”
In the Perham game, the Pioneers’ running game was unstoppable. Junior Michael Leidenfrost rushed for 132 yards, senior Matthias Algarin (who will run for the University of Nebraska next year) rushed for 111, and senior Blake Kowalczyk add 93 more.
Apart from the fact that the Pioneers have unusual last names, they also have great talent. JCC has an outstanding defensive line and fast, sure-tackling linebackers. But the Pioneers hit the line of scrimmage in a hurry, so Schuller predicts his defensive backs must be ready to make tackles. The Pioneers do like to run, but they’re also a very good screen team, and they’re able to break a simple pass play into a long gainer by getting their speedsters matched up man-to-man.
It can be a problem for any defense -- even a defense as solid as the Huskies’ -- who haven’t allowed an offense more than 15 points all year prior to the Waseca contest.
Not that Pierz will have it easy on Saturday, either.
“They’ve got problems they’ve got to worry about, too,” said Schuller.
For one, JCC rarely loses battles up front. For another, the Huskies have an outstanding senior quarterback in Rudy Voss, who throws accurate passes long or short but is an especially dangerous runner. JCC also possesses a big, powerful running back in senior Bradley Buhl Jr., who carried the football 32 times against Waseca.
Schuller said he’d like to force Pierz to constrict its defense by running Buhl often on Saturday. But he has to be careful. Buhl is also a linebacker and an important cog in the Huskies’ defense, and the coach doesn’t want to overuse him on the offensive side.
Fans should see a very interesting chess match in the Class AAA semifinal. Both teams will angle for favorable matchups on a U.S. Bank turf field that favors offenses -- particularly the faster team. Pierz is faster than JCC, Schuller said. But JCC might be the more physical outfit.
Like Schuller, Pierz coach Dan Saehr predicts a tight game.
“I think it’s two very, very evenly-matched teams. Both teams can run it, both teams can throw it, too. Right now we’re the No. 1 and No. 2 scoring teams in Class 3A, and I think the turnovers and penalties can be important,” he said.
Saehr and his assistants will have their eyes on Buhl and Voss, for sure. “I run a lot of the defense, and their fullback, he’s a load. And I think their quarterback is as good an athlete, if not the best, that I’ve seen all year,” said Saehr. “We’ve gotta do what we can to contain those guys, and that’s easier said than done.”