Pierce vs Battle Creek

Ben Brahmer (right) of Pierce catches a pass for a 35-yard touchdown late in the 4th quarter as Baron Buckendahl (left) and Boden Obst (middle) of Battle Creek leave him wide during a football game on Friday night in Pierce.

Back in August, it wouldn’t have surprised many people if you told them that Pierce would be back in the Class C1 title game come November.

However, they would be surprised to learn how they got there.

The Bluejays started the season 4-0, but cracks began to show in a 35-33 loss at Boone Central, their first in the regular season since 2017. Then after winning its next two games, the black and blue were throttled by Battle Creek in October.

Once the final whistle blew, the players started to put a lot more effort into preparation.

“Practices have been a lot more physical, practices have been a lot faster-paced,” coach Mark Brahmer said. “There’s just been a little more hop in their step, because they knew if they didn’t make changes and start doing the things we were asking them to do, that their season could get cut short.”

The fruits of their labor would show not long after.

Pierce ended its regular season with a home win over Wayne, but it was the week to follow — a trip to Broken Bow to start the playoffs — where Brahmer believes the Bluejays really turned a corner.

The Indians play a physical brand of football. It was the Bluejays’ job to not only overcome it, but do so on the road in a hostile environment.

“Their football out there is 1998-style football. Probably you could say it’s 1982-style football,” Brahmer said. “It was actually very fun for me to scout it because I’m that old of a guy where I can really appreciate that brand of ball. So that was probably a big week for us in terms of how we practiced and then how we — in turn — played on Friday night.”

That toughness continued to show itself in the two games that followed. They used a touchdown with 12 seconds left to muscle past then-undefeated Ashland-Greenwood, then shut out Battle Creek and sacked the Braves 12 times in the state semifinals.

Still, this team has taken its share of blows.

In their third game of the year, the Bluejays lost Colton Fritz — their leading tackler from last season — to a torn ACL. It was just one of many injuries that was tough to overcome at first. Over time, people have stepped up.

Junior Tristan Kuehler has filled in for Fritz and now leads the team with 142 tackles. He’s had at least 10 in nine of the past 10 games he’s played.

“He’s really a smart kid, cerebral, intelligent guy,” Brahmer said “That’s probably his greatest attribute is his ability to kind of be able to know what’s coming, and he’s got good instincts, too.”

Now one final test awaits: A rematch with Columbus Lakeview.

The Vikings were a two-point conversion away from taking the lead with under a minute left in their week 2 game, but a pass to the end zone fell incomplete and the Bluejays survived. Lakeview dropped its next game to Wayne but hasn’t lost since.

It’s come largely thanks to experienced linemen who have created pressure on defense and paved the way for carriers on offense.

“Those are strong young men and they do a nice job of teaching fundamental techniques and just the fundamentals of football,” Brahmer said. “They do a great job of getting hands on, they do a great job of reading your linemen, they’re going to play with good pad-level and play with leverage.”

Even if you get past the line, you’ll need to take down one of their many talented ball carriers. None are more lethal than Adam Van Cleave, who leads the Vikings in receiving yards and rushing yards.

The key to slowing him down will be getting as many defenders around him as possible and making tackles, regardless of how ugly it looks, Brahmer said.

“It does not make any difference whether it was a shoestring tackle or whether it was a great form shoulder tackle. They’re all counted as tackles,” Brahmer said. “In this case, you’ve just got to get him down however you can get him down.”

Repeating as state champion isn’t something Pierce has done since 2007 and 2008, but Brahmer wants his guys to take things one day at a time on and off the field.

“If you do that throughout the week, including next Monday, then you’ve got a good chance to hopefully be successful on Tuesday,” Brahmer said. “We’re just going to go down and play as hard as we can and hopefully that’s good enough. Win, lose or draw, we‘ve got to give it our best and try to play the best brand of football we can play.”

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