PIERCE — The Bluejays of Pierce High punched their ticket to the Class C1 state championship for the third straight year on Friday night and avenged their most recent loss with a 21-0 win over the Battle Creek Braves in the semifinals of the Nebraska state football playoffs.

The teams had met on Oct. 16 in Battle Creek, a game the Braves won 24-6.

“The kids have done a great job of working hard. I’m really proud of the progress they’ve made the whole year,” coach Mark Brahmer said. “We’ve grown a lot as young men, and a lot of these young men individually have grown a lot in terms of their mental toughness and physical toughness over the last month.”

That toughness showed itself in what was the black and blue’s best defensive performance of the season.

In its first shutout since the 2019 season, Pierce held the Braves to just 38 total yards, including minus-23 rushing yards and six sacks, all of which came in the fourth quarter.

“Our kids have been practicing a lot harder on the defensive end,” Brahmer said. “We thought we had a pretty good plan in place on Sunday night as we got everything finalized. Our kids were able to execute it.”

Battle Creek opened up the contest with a three and out and Pierce answered by getting the ball inside the Braves’ 10-yard line. However, the drive stalled and the ensuing field goal by Keenan Valverde was blocked.

The purple and gold went three and out again and, this time, the Bluejays were able to capitalize, as Michael Kruntorad ran in a 35-yard touchdown for the game’s first points.

Following yet another Battle Creek three and out, the ensuing punt was blocked by Ritter Oestreich and recovered at the 17. Four plays later, Kruntorad punched it in from a yard out. 

The touchdowns were part of a leading day for the senior running back and linebacker. Kruntorad had 17 carries for a team-high 110 yards and two touchdowns. In his final home game for the black and blue, he saw it as vital that he leave everything out there.

“Playing offense and defense is a very fun thing,” Kruntorad said. “You’ve always got to come out swinging and hit hard.”

Kruntorad has now run for 100 or more yards and two touchdowns in each of his last two games.

Behind him in yardage was Matt Christensen, who had 26 carries for 85 yards. The senior transfer from Plainview also surpassed 1,000 yards for the season, a goal he wanted to reach for a long time.

“It’s amazing. Two years ago today, I would have never seen myself doing that. It’s a goal I’ve had since my freshman year and words can’t even explain how happy I am about it,” Christensen said, “but in the end, I’m just doing what I need to do to help my team win.”

Among his biggest plays was an interception when the Braves drove to the Bluejays’ 33 early in the second quarter. It ended up being as far as Battle Creek got into Pierce territory all day.

Pierce took its 14-0 lead into the second half and kept the score as such until late in the fourth quarter. That’s when Abram Scholting found Ben Brahmer in the end zone for the 13th time this season.

Unlike the previous contest between the two teams, Battle Creek struggled to get anything substantial going on the ground. In the eyes of coach Andrew Carlson, the biggest reason for that was plays in the trenches that weren’t made.

“They got a body on a body and they pushed us around,” he said. “Say what you want, we've got to make plays and at times we did, there’s no doubt about it, but there were times we didn’t.”

Carlson was proud of the way his team bounced back after starting the season 3-3. How the Braves fought to win each game showed a lot of character.

“We knew we had to win out,” he said. “They came together, circled the wagons and, when things got tough, we competed at the highest level and were able to make a heck of a run in the playoffs and be a state semifinal team, which says a lot about them.”

Battle Creek’s season comes to an end with a final record of 8-4. This was the team’s first trip to the state semifinals since 2017, when it lost to Yutan.

Meanwhile, the Bluejays will face Columbus Lakeview for the Class C1 crown. The teams faced off in Pierce in week 2, and the Vikings ended up losing after failing to score on a two-point conversion that would’ve given them the lead with less than 30 seconds remaining.

Lakeview hasn’t lost since that game.

“They’re a senior-laden team. They’re very well-coached. They present a difficult matchup for you offensively and defensively. We came out on top the first time around,” Brahmer said. “We’re going to have to do our darnedest to stay that way the second time around as well.”

Kickoff is set for Tuesday, Nov. 23, at 10:15 a.m. at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.

Class C1 semifinal

Battle Creek 0 0 0 0 — 0

Pierce 14 0 0 7 — 21

Scoring summary

FIRST QUARTER

PIE: Michael Kruntorad 35 run (Keenan Valverde kick), 3:43.

PIE: Kruntorad 1 run (Valverde kick), 0:25.

FOURTH QUARTER

PIE: Ben Brahmer 35 pass from Abram Scholting (Valverde kick), 3:06.

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