2002: A Winner Is Formed
The St. Paul Pioneers burst upon the Minnesota Semi-Pro football scene in 2002. Adam Gold and Ryan Venturine, former Minneapolis Lumberjacks who had won a Midwest Regional Championship in 2001, were approached about starting a team based out of St. Paul.
Gold was an all-star linebacker and Venturine a confident and skilled quarterback with the Jacks. They would transfer those skills and attract several of their Lumberjacks teammates to their new team in St. Paul. Jim Walsh, a four-year defensive end with the Jacks, was also asked to help start the new team and he came up with the name, the St. Paul Pioneers. George “King Juicy” Hall also joined the Pioneers organization from the Lumberjacks, volunteering to serve as sideline operations manager.
In their first season, the Pioneers started out like gangbusters, scoring loads of points and dashing to several early wins. After a loss to the Racine Raiders in Racine, Wis., however, the Pioneers stumbled before regaining their traction in the Mid-America Football League playoffs. The Pioneers fell in the league semi-finals that first season.
2003: AFA National Championship Game
Year two would be completely different. Head Coach Adam Gold cleaned house, ridding the team of some players and adding more talent and, more importantly, more character. The squad fell in an early season tilt to the Minnesota Maulers, a perennial MFL power, but would come back to beat the Maulers in the MFL championship game. The Pioneers then captured the Midwest Tournament by destroying teams from Milwaukee and the St. Louis area. Gold and General Manager Brian Schulz worked hard to give the team a national reputation and the season ended with a nail-biting 28-21 loss to the Brooklyn Mariners in the 2003 AFA National Championship Game at the Metrodome.
Gold stepped down as team owner and head coach before the 2004 season to spend more time with his family in Mason City, Iowa. Schulz took over ownership and named Bo Wasurick, an All-America tight end for the Pioneers in 2003, as head coach. All the Pioneers accomplished under Schulz and Wasurick was a second MFL championship in a row, thanks to a 95-yard, last minute drive against the Lumberjacks in the title game. A Midwest Tournament loss to national powerhouse Detroit Seminoles in Detroit, a game that the Pioneers played without either of their two quarterbacks, ended the season.
2005-2007: Transition, MFL Champs, and USA Bowl Winners
More changes came to the Pioneers before the 2005 season, as Scott Ramsdell, Tony Aitkin and Dan Mitchell bought the team from Schulz and moved the Pioneers to the north metro area. The team was renamed the Midwest Pioneers and played its games at Mounds View High School. The new ownership group brought many great things to the organization – a family-friendly atmosphere, terrific game day operations and financial stability. But the Pioneers lost many of the players that had boosted the team to on-the-field excellence and the team, although competitive, failed to win a game in 2005.
Ramsdell, Mitchell and Aitkin didn’t stand pat. They brought in Nate Heiser as head coach and his brother, Mark Heiser, as defensive coordinator. And they reunited with Jason “Cheddar” Fleming, the team’s offensive coordinator from 2003 and 2004. Fleming and the Heisers had won the 2005 MFL championship, leading the Twin Cities Titans to the crown. They would rework their magic with the 2006 Pioneers, helping complete an impressive worst-to-first season and capturing the 2006 MFL championship. A USA Bowl victory over the Rochester Giants at the Metrodome completed a season that saw the Pioneers crowned the best semi-pro team in the upper Midwest.
The next season started with uncertainty for the Pioneers. The team was sold to Eric Wessels, who decided just as the season approached, that outside commitments would keep him from running the team. Jason Blomer, who had long been associated with Minnesota semi-pro football, stepped in at the last minute as owner and general manager. At first, the Pioneers’ road seemed smooth, despite an early loss to their nemesis Lumberjacks. The team defeated the Racine Raiders, the Superior Stampede and the Minnesota Maulers to position itself for a playoff run. But Blomer struggled to make financial ends meet and, only days before their playoff game with the Maulers, the Pioneers could not secure a game field. The team had to forfeit the playoff game and would not have a chance to compete for another MFL title.
2008: NAFL Elite 8
In 2008, original leaders of the team once again steadied the Pioneers’ ship.
George Hall – “Juicy” to all who know and love him – took over ownership of the team with passion, commitment and imagination. Schulz and Gold offered their guidance and expertise as vice presidents. While Nate Heiser stepped down as head coach, Mark Heiser took the reins and immediately had an impact. Working with Fleming, the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator, and Walsh, now defensive coordinator, Heiser led the team to NAFL division and regional championships and a spot in the league's Elite Eight. A loss to the eventual national champion Indianapolis Tornados ended a terrific season for the once-again St. Paul Pioneers.
2009: NAFL National Champions
In 2009, all the hard work, all the dedication, all the passion paid off.
The Pioneers entered the season knowing they had the quality players and coaches to make a run to a championship. Despite a couple bumps in the road, that is exactly what St. Paul did, ending a 15-1 season with a thrilling, last-second 23-21 victory in the NAFL National Championship game in Miami, Fl., beating the perennial powerhouse Nashville Storm.
It was the best season in Pioneers history. The most wins. The fewest losses. All-America and All-Star players. And the franchise's first-ever national title. Since the Pioneers' founding in 2002, the team has won four league championships, three regional crowns, one conference title, one national runner-up finish and one national championship.
In an arena where so many teams are born, play and flame out in just a couple of seasons, the Pioneers are one of a select few that continue to compete – and win – year after year. Now beginning their ninth season, the hugely successful Pioneers are joining the Northern Elite Football League. And the 2010 schedule offers some real possibilities for newfound rivalries. Games against the Minnesota Phoenix, the Rochester Giants and the Twin Harbors Stampede are sure to ignite emotions. It’s sure to be another exciting and successful season of St. Paul Pioneers football.
Leave No Doubt.
2010-2011: NEFL Champions
New League, Same Results
For the 2010 season, the Pioneers moved from the NAFL to the Northern Elite Football League. While the NEFL is not national in scope -- its teams are in Wisconsin and Minnesota -- the challenge to St. Paul was the same: Become Champions!
Despite losing a couple of mid-season games by a combined six points, the St. Paul Pioneers hit the road in the playoffs to defeat three higher-seeded teams -- the South Metro Dragons, the Chippewa Valley Predators and the Fox Valley Force -- to finish 10-2 overall and capture the 2010 NEFL championship. It was the Pioneers fifth title in nine years of existence, once again cementing the team's status as one of the top semi-pro or amateur men's football teams in the country.
In 2011, the Pioneers came back even stronger for their second NEFL campaign. Even after losing several starters to the Chippewa Valley Predators before the start of the season, St. Paul simply reloaded. A close loss to the Minnesota Dragons, followed by a tie with the Dragons a few weeks later, prevented St. Paul from winning their division and required the Pioneers to once again hit the road in the playoffs. They did, winning games at Rochester and a rematch with the Dragons. Then St. Paul faced the Predators, and several of their former teammates, in the Elite Bowl in Eau Claire. The Pioneers shut out the vaunted Predators 15-0 to win their second title in a row.
2012: National Champions Again!
When the coaches began tryouts in the early spring of 2012, there was a different vibe in the air. It probably had something to do with an infusion of new talent, some of it in the form of players just out of strong college programs.
It did not take long for the Pioneers to begin thinking bigger things than their third straight NEFL title. As the games began being played and the points – and shutouts – piled up, Pioneers players, coaches and staff dared to dream big. “If we run the table, we should go national,” was the common refrain.
Table run. National title game accepted and won. Job Done.
The 2012 St. Paul Pioneers ran through their league schedule, scoring the most points in NEFL history and giving up the fewest points in league history as well. If a title game victory over the Chippewa Valley Predators felt like a prelude to something bigger, well, yeah, it was.
The Pioneers accepted a bid to play in the USA Bowl Spring/Summer National Championship on Jan. 19, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. The opponent would be the 15-0 North Texas Longhorns, champions of the Texas United Football League.
The game, against the higher-ranked Longhorns, would go about the same as almost every other Pioneers game. St. Paul jumped out to an early lead, behind a powerful yet balanced offensive attack. Then the team’s dominating defense slammed the door. Final: St. Paul 30, North Texas 7. The game capped the first undefeated season in Pioneers history and earned the team its second National Championship since 2009.
Some teams in Minnesota like to talk about starting a dynasty. With a 58-6-1 record and two national championships since 2008, the St. Paul Pioneers in 2012 Left No Doubt that they have already become one.
2013: Started slow, but another title.
The 2013 season started uncharacteristically for the Pioneers. The sheen of an undefeated National Championship season in 2012 was quickly dulled in early 2013, as the Pioneers lost three times to two tough opponents at the very start of the year. To make it all worse, several season-ending injuries to key players left the Pioneers feeling depleted and unsure of the future.
But Head Coach Mark Heiser, his veteran coaching staff and his experienced team leaders refused to let what could have been a disastrous season continue rolling downhill. The Pioneers regrouped and ended the year 9-1, making the playoffs as a second seed and winning their fourth straight NEFL Crown. More changes are sure to follow, as several key players announced that 2013 would be their last season in cardinal and black. But the Pioneers look to continue their winning ways into 2014 and beyond. The Pioneers dynasty appears alive and well.
2014: Third National Crown!
Another league title... and another USA Bowl National Championship win over a Texas team in Daytona Beach, Fla. This time, the Pioneers topped the Texas Bullets in convincing fashion, 41-14, for St. Paul's third national championship since 2009 and second in three seasons.
Few teams can call a year that ends with a league championship a disappointment. And the Pioneers will never take the tough NEFL for granted. The truth is, the NEFL has proven to be one of the nation's premier amateur football leagues. But many on the Pioneers had a goal in 2014 to return to national prominence.
After winning their fifth straight NEFL crown, the Pioneers did just that, with perhaps their most well-rounded and dominant performance of the season.
2015: A Game Short
The 2015 had all the makings of another run to another National Championship. Until the Muskegon Mustangs got in the way. The Pioneers ran through their regular season with a 13-0 record and a sixth straight NEFL crown, with a dominating performance over the Chippewa Valley Predators in the Elite Bowl.
Confidence was high as St. Paul prepared for a return trip to Dayton Beach, Fla., and a shot for a fourth national title. But the undefeated Muskegon Mustangs broke open what had been a fairly close game after halftime, defeating the Pioneers 37-18. St. Paul finished the season 13-1.
2016: Retooling a Champion
Sitting at 2-2 after four games, and 5-3 after eight, the St. Paul Pioneers hardly looked invincible at the start of the 2016 football season. But much of St. Paul’s struggles had to do with turning the page – from old systems and several veteran players to a new defensive scheme and a very new offensive line. Pioneers fans shouldn’t have worried.
St. Paul ended the 2016 campaign with a 10-3 overall record and a seventh straight NEFL title to its name with a dominant performance in the NEFL championship against old nemesis Chippewa Valley.
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