Week 11: Stats | Recap 
Win 24-10 vs MN Dragons

Pioneers Avenge Lone Regular Season Loss inPioneers/Dragons III
By Jon Gray

The third time between the St. Paul Pioneers and the Minnesota Dragons proved to be the charm Saturday, as the Pioneers defeated the top-seeded Dragons 24-10 to earn a spot in their second straight NEFL championship game and the team’s third straight chance for a league title.

In yet another hard-fought battle, only the result was different as the Pioneers showed everyone in attendance who was the better team. Unlike their previous games against the Dragons – a 14-6 loss and a 13-13 tie – the Pioneers this time made the extra play over and over again. And, for the second straight game, they played turnover-free football.

The Dragons could not say the same, thanks to a ball-hawking Pioneers defense. St. Paul picked off three Dragons’ passes over the course of the game.

After a deadlocked 3-3 first quarter, St. Paul cornerback Everett Wilburn took the liberty of getting the party started by jumping an out route and returning an interception down to the Dragons’ 1-yard line. Bruising running back Brian Holmes made it 10-3 with a plunge into the end zone.

Another Holmes touchdown later in the second quarter gave the Pioneers a 17-3 halftime lead. St. Paul opened the second half continuing their commitment to the ground game, rotating backs between Holmes, Deshay Hudson and Brian Warden. This strategy enabled the Pioneers to control the clock, and ultimately the game.

The Pioneers finished the game with a total of 134 yards rushing on 39 carries, including a pair of touchdowns. The Pioneers were also efficient through the air, with quarterback Paul Ciochetto going 8 for 12 for 90 yards.  Damien Rochon-Washington led St. Paul receivers with 3 grabs for 38 yards and a touchdown.

The Pioneers special teams reversed roles from game 2, as they were now the ones blocking field goals and harassing the Dragons kicker Jon Ostertag.

Martell Lightfoot, the Pioneers’ biggest player, was a big part of that as he used every inch of his 6’8 frame to block two Ostertag field goal attempts, preserving the Pioneers lead.

The Pioneers defense continued its punishing play, knocking out Dragons quarterback Jason Johnson with a shoulder injury. On the play, tackle Jeff McGaster provided furious pressure to get to Johnson and break up a pass as he drove Johnson into the turf.

Dragons’ offensive coordinator and backup quarterback Will Staples came into the game in the 3rd quarter, replacing Johnson, and gave his team a spark – first prompting a pass interference call on the Pioneers secondary and then delivering a frozen rope to wideout Marcus Foster to cut the Pioneers’ lead to 17-10. Rather than buckle under the pressure, however, St. Paul’s offense continued its recent trend of calmly taking over the game.

The Pioneers marched down the field, eating up chunks of yardage behind linemen Lightfoot and C.J. Sanderson, Zac Thompson, Chad Michaels and Shannon Johnson. It was run, run, run as the Pioneers drained the clock – until the last play of the drive. That’s when wideout Joseph Mapson hit Washington with a 17-yard strike, giving the Pioneers a 24-10 lead.

On the following Dragons drive, Pioneers’ safety Nate Beulah picked off a sailing Staples pass. And, with that, the proverbial stake was driven into the hearts of the Dragons.

With this victory, the St. Paul Pioneers move on to the NEFL Championship game against the Chippewa Valley Predators. The game is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 6, at Carson Park in Eau Claire. It is a rematch of last year’s playoff semifinals, which St. Paul won 16-14. The teams are 1-1 in their history, with the Predators winning a regular season matchup earlier in 2010.

Warden was the Pioneers’ leading rusher, with 62 hard-fought yards on 13 carries. In all, the Pioneers outgained the Dragons in total offense, 241 yards to 189.

Pioneers defenders McGaster and Cliff Gordy each recorded a sack in the game, giving McGaster nine sacks in NEFL play and Gordy 11. The Pioneers’ secondary was awarded defensive player of the game honors, with Willburn, Beulah and corner Ra Ra Armstrong each collecting interceptions and slowing the Dragons’ potent passing attack.

Safety Andre Spencer and McGaster were the Pioneers’ leading tacklers, with seven stops apiece. They were part of a unit that held the Dragons to just 78 yards rushing on the day.