Pierce High School athletic director Darren Sindelar was looking forward to a break. The man in charge of staging the Bluejays' three early-round state playoff games — with West Point-Beemer, Wahoo and St. Paul — had worked hard to make sure all of the logistics had been taken care of and that everything ran smoothly.
But just before Pierce's semifinal game last Friday, word came from the Nebraska School Activities Association that because of COVID-19 levels in Lincoln, the state championship games would not be played at Memorial Stadium and instead would be hosted on Friday by the highest-seeded finalists.
Since second-seeded Pierce was the highest remaining seed among the Class C1 teams, the 21-14 semifinal victory over St. Paul ensured the Bluejays would play the state final on their home field.
"There's part of me that was really excited, because any time you can host a championship game and play it at your home site, that's always a great thing," Sindelar said. "But there's another part of me that's like, 'We already hosted the first three rounds, I thought I was going to be able to go down to Lincoln and kind of enjoy the game.’ But I'm really excited to be a part of this game and for our fans and for our community and for our school."
Sindelar said he never has any problems finding enough volunteers. "Our booster club has stepped up to do things, and people in the community have stepped up," he said. "It's going to take a lot of people to get this done, but then again, we've done it for the semifinals, we've done it for the quarterfinals and the first round, so we know what needs to be done; it's just now, it's a little bit of a grander stage."
Sindelar said additional details need to be addressed when hosting a state title game that aren't part of early-round contests. "The biggest thing is, even though it is a home game for us, we and the NSAA want to try to make it as neutral as possible.
"You have your ways set of how you do your home games, but now it's, ‘All right, we've got to make sure our announcer is unbiased. We've got to make sure we're not cheering for one team a little bit more than the other.'
"It's also knowing how many fans to be ready for. It's going to be a great game; it's going to be a beautiful night, so we're preparing for quite a few fans,” he said before the game. “It just takes a lot of communication between us and the NSAA and making sure we have everything ready so we can make this a great event."
Sindelar said it isn't anything the good people of Pierce can't handle. "We just have to make sure we have the facilities, maybe have some more restrooms and bleachers, and then the stuff the NSAA wants us to provide, like selling programs. We just have to have people there and make sure we're trying to run it as if it were down in Lincoln."
Legacy of the ’89 Bluejays
If you read Wednesday's edition of the Daily News, you may have come across a story featuring the 1989 Pierce team, the only Bluejay squad before Friday to play a state championship game on its home turf.
The story also indicated that the current version of the Bluejays has a connection with the team that proudly represented the school 31 falls ago.
Five of the 1989 Bluejays are the fathers of seven players on the current roster. We asked them to meet us before Friday night's championship game for a photo.
Actually, there were six. Eighth grader Cooper Wachholtz, a student manager for this year's team, lost his father, Brent, to cancer when he was just 2 years old.
Brent was a fullback on the '89 squad and scored a touchdown in the Class B state title showdown with Elkhorn on a 71-yard screen pass.
Quarterback Blaine Bockelman — the father of 2020 Bluejay David Dale — said he'll always remember that play. "He zig-zagged through; that was a good play call," he said.
Cooper said, like his father, he plans to play football for the Bluejays next fall. Cooper said he doesn't remember his dad but likes to hear other people talk about him. "People say he was a great guy and how great he was on the football team." Cooper said.
The 2020 Bluejays became the fourth Pierce team to win a state championship, on Friday, after emerging victorious in the C1 title game over Hastings Adams Central 28-19.
The 1989 team fell one game short, losing 33-17 to Elkhorn — which had three times the enrollment of Pierce — for all the marbles in Class B.
Jay Meier — the father of current Bluejays Garret and Zach — was a 180-pound offensive and defensive lineman on that team 31 years ago. He reminisced about having to play on both offense and defense while their visitors from Douglas County played a mostly different lineup on each side of the ball.
Pierce actually led 17-13 at halftime, but Meier said he and his fellow linemen were out of gas. "I do remember being ahead at halftime, but we were shot," he said. "They'd keep rotating all the time a lot like Pierce does now."
Eric Wachholtz was a sophomore then. He said played in most of the varsity games but not that night. "I remember thinking at halftime, 'We're going to win a state championship.' " Eric is Brent's younger brother, Cooper's uncle and current Bluejay Jacksen's dad.
It didn't work out that night, but before the game on Friday, Eric was feeling confident. "These kids are just amazing to watch, how well they play together and their camaraderie.”
"My son's a sophomore, which is the same as I was back then. He has nothing but good things to say about the senior class and the juniors and sophomores playing in key spots that are good friends of his. They're just a really good solid unit, and they have no weaknesses at all, in my opinion."
One thing all of the '89 Bluejays agreed on is that they're more nervous watching their kids play than they were during their playing days.
Ryan Collison was a freshman on the '89 squad. Now he cheers for his senior sons, Luke and Zach. "I can't believe the emotions I have compared to when I played. I can't remember feeling this emotional as I do watching these guys play," he said.
Matt Moeller — Logan's father — summed it up. "These kids remind me a lot of that team in '89. Just kids going out there and playing ball and having fun."
My late father owned a bar in Battle Creek in the 1980s and ’90s and always told me the state football playoffs were good for business. Battle Creek hosted a lot of playoff games in those years — including three championship games.
When I found out Pierce would be hosting Friday night's final, I thought of the extra economic activity that would be taking place in Pierce and Norfolk.
The championship games have been played in Lincoln since 1996. So the capital city has reaped the revenue and economic rewards those games have generated for nearly 25 years.
Not so this year. Wanda Backus runs J's Place in Pierce. "I'm really excited," she said. "I've got a special going on to hopefully draw the people so they can get a good meal and keep going. I think it's going to be great for the community, great for the team to have it here."
Backus said with the restrictions the state is imposing, she's offering take-out service only. "I'm a mom-and-pop shop, but I'm trying to get it all ready to go out the door as fast as I can and have it ready to go out to the game.
"I get some business before the game. I don't get a whole lot after," she said. "We had 20 to 25 extra customers for the nights of those previous playoff games. So, it's kind of hit-and-miss."
Caitlin Macke, who manages the Casey's General Store in Pierce, said she listened to the Bluejays’ semifinal victory over St. Paul on the radio. "I was driving home and I had heard that we were going to be hosting the state championship here in Pierce and I was ecstatic," she said. "I couldn't think of a better way for the community to pull together for this."
Macke said the location of her business on the outskirts of Pierce makes it the perfect place for visiting fans to fill up their tanks as well as load up on snacks and drinks for the drive home.
"I could tell there was an expansion in business; it escalated for every playoff game," she said. "The closer they came to the championship, it just seemed like it got more and more busy. We've prepared ourselves to the best of our ability. We're ready for a big crowd and to support both teams. "
Like J's Place, Taylor's Bar and Grill offered take-out only. "We expanded our hours to try to accommodate around the time-frame of the game," owner and manager Shane Taylor said.
Of course with the visitors driving to Pierce from the Hastings area, most traveled on Highway 81, so, no doubt, the 13th Street businesses in Norfolk received a big chunk of the business from the visiting fans.
But whether in Norfolk or Pierce, the economic impact should have a positive effect on Northeast Nebraska's economy.