On the third play from scrimmage, Pierz discovered what makes St. Croix Lutheran special.

Crusaders running back Mike Stern exploded toward the line, took a handoff from quarterback Isaac Tietz and burst through a crease created by a well-executed block, finally stopping 88 yards later in the Pierz end zone.

The St. Croix Lutheran veer offense doesn't wow anyone until it's seen in person. After the Crusaders held off Pierz 35-28 in the Class 3A semifinals, consider the Pioneers sufficiently wowed.

"I think, when people see the size of our linemen, they might underestimate us a little," St. Croix Lutheran coach Carl Lemke said. "But we don't need to blow anyone off the ball. We just need to get into them and our backs do the rest."

The No. 1-ranked Crusaders rolled to a 35-7 lead, then held off a late Pierz rally to reach the Prep Bowl for the third time in the last six years.

Stern rushed for 257 yards on 23 carries and scored two more touchdowns, on runs of 15 and two yards. His backfield mate Daniel Rust added 118 yards. Overall, St. Croix Lutheran finished with 509 total yards.

"They didn't have the size that Greenway [Pierz quarterfinals foe] had, but they were a lot quicker and they executed better," Pierz running back/linebacker Lane Girtz said.

Pierz, which averaged fewer than 10 pass attempt per game, fought its way back through the air. The Pioneers passed for 94 yards and scored three consecutive touchdowns in the fourth quarter to put the outcome in doubt.

Jim Paulsen