MINNEAPOLIS — South St. Paul head coach Chad Sexauer isn’t cautious about throwing accolades at the Becker Bulldogs.
The timing is right. The Packers face Becker for the state Class 4A championship at 4 p.m. Friday at TCF Bank Stadium.
“We’re playing one of the top two or three teams in the state in any class,” Sexauer said. “It doesn’t matter what the class is.
“Obviously, Beau Pauly, Dillon Radunz, Casey Vesledahl and Alex Meidt are all special players, the kind you see in schools in 6A.
The aforementioned players all were key members of Becker’s 2014 state championship squad and part of a program that has put together a 23-game winning streak.
Fifth-ranked South St. Paul (11-1), meanwhile, is in its first state championship since the playoff system was instituted in 1972.
“To me, being able to coach against one of the state’s legends in Dwight Lundeen is nice,” Sexauer said. “He’s got a pretty special program.
“We’re excited about the challenge.”
The other Prep Bowl game involving an area team is in Class 3A. Top-ranked Pierz (12-0) plays ninth-ranked Jackson County Central (10-2) at 1 p.m. Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
It’s the Pioneers’ first Prep Bowl appearance since 2004 when they beat Eden Valley-Watkins for the state championship.
Huskies head coach Tom Schuller sounds a little like Sexauer when talking about Pierz.
“They have a tremendous level of talent on their football team, especially up front,” Schuller said. “Their front four on defense and their offensive line is very imposing and will be very difficult to get through.”
A quick look at the games:
Becker vs. SSP
The Packers are a power running team that likes to control the ball and will try to play keep-away from the Bulldogs. They are led by senior quarterback Dan Pietruszewski, who has rushed for 1,319 yards and 24 touchdowns on 180 attempts.
They have an excellent backfield led by Anthony Perez (133 carries, 848 yards, 6 TDs) and Malik Holmes (75 carries, 641 yards, 9 TDs).
Pietruszewski doesn’t throw often, but can. He has completed 37 of 60 passes for 865 yards and 11 TDs with two interceptions.
Austin Brandecker (10 catches, 296 yards, 4 TDs) and Ryan Duffy (11 receptions, 266 yards, 3 TDs) both make South St. Paul’s passing game a big-play option.
Duffy is one of their best all-round players. He returns kicks and is one of their top defensive players, with 33 tackles and five interceptions.
Jesus Cortez leads the Packers with 67 tackles. Dan Coan (40 tackles), Ben LaBrosse (38 tackles) and Arafat Santa (37 tackles) are other defensive players to watch.
“They played a really tough schedule, tougher than us,” Lundeen said. “They are probably the most athletic team we’ve played in the playoffs.”
South St. Paul’s only loss is 28-27 to Park of Cottage Grove, a 5A school, on Aug. 28. The Packers beat St. Thomas Academy — which is playing for the Class 5A title Saturday — 28-21 on Sept. 18. They also beat Inver Grove Heights Simley, a 2014 Prep Bowl Participant in Class 5A, twice this season.
Becker makes its 15th state appearance since 1989. Lundeen is the program’s only coach, starting football at Becker in 1968.
Radunz, 6-6 and 270, is a defensive end/offensive tackle committed to North Dakota State. Vesledahl (6-4, 285, sr.) is a two-way lineman who has an offer from St. Cloud State and interest from Division I schools. Pauly (6-3, 215, sr.) has Division I interest.
Meidt (5-10, 165, sr.) is the son of assistant coach Chris Meidt, a former Washington Redskins assistant and once the head coach at St. Olaf. He was awarded the Minnesota Vikings scholarship award, prompting former Viking E.J. Henderson to show up and present the award to Meidt at practice this week.
“We’re two different styles totally,” Lundeen said of the Bulldogs and Packers. “They try to keep your hands off the ball and get it into four-down territory.”
Andrew Stanger has completed 94 of 162 passes for 1,641 yards and 23 TDs with five interceptions. Meidt (31 catches, 564 yards, 13 TDs) and Clayton Gallus (25 catches, 291 yards, 4 TDs) are his primary targets.
Gabe Dertinger (105 attempts, 1,056 yards, 11 TDs) leads an impressive ground game that averages seven yards per carry.
“We need to find some ways to get them off the field (offensively),” Sexauer said. “That’s going to be critical.”
Pauly (67 tackles, 2 interceptions), Jaylin Hildebrandt (67 tackles), Frankie Baker (37 tackles) Milan Kent (33 tackles) and Radunz (34 tackles) lead the defense.
Pierz vs. JCC
These are two really similar teams. Neither messes around offensively. Both have excellent power-running offenses and both have overcome injuries to get to the final.
Pierz head coach Leo Pohlkamp said he expects everyone who has been hampered by injuries to play, including starting quarterback Aaron Weber, who is dealing with an ankle injury.
Weber has completed 40 of 74 passes for 894 yards and 12 touchdowns.
But the Pioneers’ real strength is running the ball. They average 328 yards per game and do it with a bevy of backs, led by Lane Girtz (139 attempts, 919 yards, 14 TDs), Jonny Kasper (120 attempts, 841 yards, 10 TDs) and Noah Boser (116 attempts, 479 yards, 13 TDs).
Pierz is led defensively by Brett Kapsner (133 tackles), Girtz (86 tackles), Ted Dehler (56 tackles), Kolton Eischens (54 tackles) and David Skiba (60 tackles).
Jackson County Central makes its sixth state appearance. The Huskies opened the year with losses to Maple River (17-15) and Pipestone Area (15-14) and have reeled off 10 straight victories.
Schuller, who is in his 17th year as head coach and has a 137-47 record, said Jackson County Central had nine ineligible players to start the season.
“We got put behind the eight ball really fast,” he said. “The good news is it enabled us to play some people who wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to play otherwise.”
Jackson County Central has averaged 379 yards rushing per game. The Huskies are led by Keegan Moore (189 attempts, 1,588 yards, 27 TDs), Avery Henderson (128 attempts, 982 yards, 14 TDs) and Dalton Wagner (45 attempts, 369 yards and 4 TDs).
Moore (5-11, 204, sr.) is a familiar name to wrestling fans. He recently signed with Oklahoma State University on a wrestling scholarship. He is the school’s record holder in career rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, single-season touchdowns and single-game rushing. He’s also a two-time state wrestling champion.
The Huskies have a smallish roster with 36 players, though they don’t dress freshmen. Schuller said the early adversity has made the squad very close.
“We have a really close-knit team,” Schuller said. “All the guys we have are real quality kids.”
(All games at TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis)
No. 3 Underwood (13-0) vs. No. 1 Grand Meadow (13-0), 10 a.m.
No. 2 Pipestone (13-0) vs. No. 1 Caledonia (13-0), 1 p.m.
No. 5 South St. Paul (11-1) vs. No. 1 Becker (12-0), 4 p.m.
Osseo (9-3) vs. No. 2 East Ridge (11-1), 7 p.m.
No. 4 Minneapolis North (12-0) vs. No. 1 Minneota (13-0), 10 a.m.
No. 9 Jackson County Central (10-2) vs. No. 1 Pierz (12-0), 1 p.m.
No. 5 St. Thomas Academy (11-1) vs. No. 4 St. Michael-Albertville (11-1), 4 p.m.
Follow Tom Elliott on Twitter @sctimestom or call 259-3661.