The Saint Paul Pioneers semipro football team had to work some new players into its lineup this year and the start of the season was a little rocky as a result. But now the jelling process seems complete.
“We’ve been kind of rising as we go,” said second-year head coach Damien Rochon-Washington, who’s been with the Pioneers as a player and then as a coach since their inaugural season in 2002.
Saint Paul Pioneers quarterback Ronald Sackett looks for an open receiver during a recent practice. PhotoS by Brad Stauffer
As of press time, the Pioneers were 5-0 in the Northern Elite Football League (NEFL) and 5-2 overall. Their only losses were the season opener in May against the Newton Nite Hawks in Iowa and in week three versus the Racine Raiders in Wisconsin.
In their league battles, however, the Pioneers have done very well, including slug-it-out wins against the second-place Kansas City Bulldogs and third-place Fargo Invaders. As of this writing, the Pioneers had two regular-season games left—July 16 at Fargo and July 23 at Kansas City.
“They’ll both be tough games, but we’ll be ready,” Rochon-Washington said. “We’re a totally different team since the start of the year.”
If they win those games, the Pioneers will own the top seed in the postseason that begins at the end of July and the coach sees no reason why his team shouldn’t make another good playoff run this year.
The Pioneers, who practice at the Jimmy Lee Recreation Center and play their home games at Concordia University’s Sea Foam Stadium, have put a good product on the field throughout their 21 seasons. They’ve won the NEFL title seven times and have three national crowns (2009, 2012 and 2014). And they haven’t had a losing season since 2005.
There are 63 players on the Pioneers’ roster, ranging from former college standouts to those who hadn’t played since high school. “We have plumbers, electricians, teachers…people from so many backgrounds,” Rochon-Johnson said.
The one thing they have in common is their love of playing football, and the coach always wants to make sure that he doesn’t take any of them for granted.“We make sure that we use all our guys,” Rochon-Washington said. “It’s our job as coaches to make sure that we get the best out of our players.”
Pioneers kicker Hardin Henry tees off as teammate Daniel Smith breaks downfield during a special teams drill. Photo by Brad Stauffer
The Pioneers are a well-balanced outfit, and have good athletes on both sides of the ball. The defense, coordinated by Jesse Luft, boasts several outstanding playmakers, and nowhere is that more the case than at linebacker.
Ryan Saumur, a veteran outside linebacker, usually can be found wherever the ball is. “He’s one of the best in the league,” Rochon-Washington said.
Saint Paul doesn’t blitz often because it doesn’t have to. The team has supreme confidence in its defensive line, which includes defensive ends Daniel Byse and Brandon Tamsett, to not only thwart the run but to generate a penetrating pass rush.
On the back end, safety Johnny Ware and cornerback Henrich Ezin also get after the ball well. At press time, the Pioneers had 10 sacks and five interceptions, and had only given up more than 14 points in a game once this year.
Still, it’s when they’re on the attack that the Pioneers are really dangerous. “We’re an incredibly balanced team on offense,” Rochon-Washington said.
The Pioneers took a while for their quarterback position to come around, but they appear to have found their guy in Ronald Sackett. He’s shown efficiency with only one interception since he took over as the team’s signal-caller.
Jeffrey DuBose has solid running back skills, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Newcomer Kwaawczar White averages about five yards a carry and has been a pleasant surprise for offensive coordinator Anthony Minus.
Wide receiver Landon Delcambre was sixth in the league with 14 catches for an average of 18.7 yards per grab. Anthony Baggett and Matt Crandall also contribute at the wideout spots.
The Pioneers have an outstanding kicker in former Minnesota Gopher Eric Ellestad, who has a 53-yard field goal to his credit this year.
Center Shannon Johnson anchors an athletic and tough offensive line, which also includes brothers Carson and Travis Madigan at tackle and guard, respectively.
The 2022 season has also been a banner one for another reason. Mark Heiser, the team’s longest-serving and most successful head coach, was inducted into the Pioneers Hall of Fame earlier this year. He led the team to three national titles, and is now president of the Pioneers’ board.
Heiser started with the team as an assistant coach in 2006. He also coached on the high school level at Saint Paul Academy.
— Bill Wagner