The best high school football team in Duluth this fall is headed to the state tournament.
Unfortunately for Duluth fans, that team is the Bemidji Lumberjacks.
Bemidji completed a three-week run through the Duluth public schools, defeating Denfeld 40-14 in the Section 7AAAA championship game Friday night at Public Schools Stadium.
Bemidji (6-5) scored four touchdowns in an 8:16 span of the second quarter to take a 33-8 halftime lead and cruised the rest of the way to earn its first state tournament berth since 2000. The Lumberjacks will face either Sartell or Alexandria in a Class AAAA quarterfinal at 6 p.m. next Saturday at St. Cloud State University.
Quarterback Mitchell Hendricks, who missed four weeks before the playoffs began with a broken collarbone, completed 7 of 8 passes for 129 yards and two touchdown passes.
When the injury occurred, Hendricks was told his sophomore season might be over.
"I was told that by a doctor a few times, but I stuck with it and got cleared to play," he said.
After Denfeld (7-4) took an 8-7 lead on Luke Jazdzewski's 8-yard first-quarter TD, Hendricks struck back by finding Ryan Rude on a 26-yard scoring pass to the right corner of the end zone early in the second quarter. After forcing a punt, the Lumberjacks needed just three plays to score as Hendricks teamed with Carey Woods on a 56-yard pass over the middle.
"[Denfeld's] safeties were shifted outside too far, and we have wideouts who know how to run routes," Hendricks said.
Hendricks' father, Bemidji coach Troy Hendricks, said that was the game plan from the onset.
"We thought we'd attack them quick and see if we could take advantage of our athletic ability at the wide receiver spot," he said.
The next play was just as crucial as Bemidji recovered a pooch kick that wasn't designed to be an onside kick but had the same effect. The Lumberjacks needed just six plays to score again on a 2-yard run by Evan Olson for a 26-8 advantage.
Two plays later, defensive back Matt Hietala ran back an interception 56 yards to complete the first-half dominance.
With a big deficit, the Hunters were unable to stick with their run-first philosophy. Four turnovers didn't help either.
"It seemed like every time we ventured away from strictly running the ball we ran into problems, which I didn't foresee," Denfeld coach Frank Huie said. "I thought we could be a little more balanced."
Bemidji ran only four plays in the third quarter yet stretched its lead to 32 points on Czar Woods' 60-yard run. Woods gained 107 yards on nine carries to lead the Lumberjacks' 203-yard effort on the ground.
The Hunters, who were seeking their first state berth since Denfeld and Morgan Park formed a consolidation in 1982, totaled 234 yards rushing.
Duluth Denfeld.............. 8-0-0-6--14
B -- Mitchell Hendricks 3 run (Mike Rees kick)
DD -- Luke Jazdzewski 8 run (C.J. Ham run)
B -- Ryan Rude 26 pass from Hendricks (run failed)
B -- Carey Woods 56 pass from Hendricks (Rees kick)
B -- Evan Olson 2 run (kick failed)
B -- Matt Hietala 56 interception return (Rees kick)
B -- Czar Woods 60 run (Rees kick)
DD -- Thong Moua 1 run (pass failed)
The Duluth News Tribune and Bemidji Pioneer are both owned by Forum Communications Co.