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Bemidji football team faces Mankato West for berth in state title game

The Bemidji football team spent part of this week working out in the snow but the elements will not be a factor Friday when the Lumberjacks take on Mankato West at the Metrodome in the state Class 4-A semifinals. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

For some state tournaments the Minnesota State High School League officials have the coaches rank the top four teams and draw their opponents out of a hat.

By doing that the officials hope to delay the matchup between the top two teams in the state until the championship game.

The practice is not followed with the football playoffs, however. If the ranking system was governing the football tournament Bemidji and Mankato West would not be playing Friday.

During the regular season and so far into the playoffs the Lumberjacks own the top QRF rating among the state's Class 4-A programs and Mankato West is second.

The QRF is similar to the BCS rating system of major college football which determines a team's standing by comparing the record and strength of schedule.

A less quantitative system but equally telling is the Associated Press poll and this fall the Scarlets were judged the top team in Class 4-A. BHS was rated third. In between was St. Thomas Academy which failed to make it to the state meet after losing 32-31 in overtime to South St. Paul, the team Mankato West defeated 35-14 last week in the state quarterfinals.

"Bemidji and Mankato West are the two teams you figured would meet somewhere in the playoffs," said Bemidji coach Troy Hendricks. "It just so happens that they will meet in the semifinals. Mankato West is the best team we will face all year and I would guess that we're the best team they will face."

Mankato West is the real deal and has a quarterback who already has signed with the Gophers.

The quarterback is senior Phillip Nelson and in Mankato West's 35-14 win over South St. Paul he rushed for two touchdowns and threw for two more.

In the state quarterfinal Nelson completed 15 of his 24 passes for 221 yards. He was intercepted twice, however. On the ground Nelson carried 20 times for 111 of Mankato West's 217 yards.

His main target through the air was Hunter Friesen who caught eight passes for 135 yards and two TDs.

Among the Jacks whose job will be to slow Nelson are defensive ends Kole Spencer and Chase Gruber. And both are eagerly awaiting the challenge.

"The quarterback is very good and we will have to make sure we stop the dives and try to contain (Nelson)," Spencer said. "And we will have to do that through complete discipline.

"So far this year our defense hasn't really been tested by a good offense but that will change Friday because Mankato West has a great offense," Spencer added.

Gruber is taking a matter-of-fact approach to the game and believes that Bemidji's team unity will be a strength on the field.

"The majority of us have been playing football together since the beginning of organized football (in Bemidji)," the senior defensive end said. "Kole and I have been on the defensive line since eighth grade and we look forward to playing together."

The Lumberjacks also have a potent offense and in the state quarterfinal the passing game was the key weapon. Mitchell Hendricks completed 18 of his 27 aerials for 235 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

Bemidji's ground game was not as productive, however, as the Jacks managed only 98 yards on 38 rushes.

Mitch Brown was the main threat on the ground as he gained 47 yards on 11 carries. Hendricks ran 17 times for 34 yards.

Hendricks was a master of sharing the wealth through the air as five receivers caught balls. Cody Rutledge led the way with 102 yards and a touchdown on five catches. Carey Woods had six catches for 74 yards.

"Against Spring Lake Park we did exactly what we wanted to do," said senior offensive lineman Garret Lind. "I'm not sure Mankato West's (defensive) line is as talented as Spring Lake Park's but I think it is bigger.

"What we will need to do is get the push off the line, continue to hold the blocks and try to run down the clock," Lind continued. "If we do those things I think our offense can put some points on the board."

No matter what happens Friday the Bemidji football players, coaches and fans have had a season to remember. But no one connected with the program wants to see it end.

"You don't have many opportunities like this," coach Hendricks told his players. "This year is something the players will remember for a long time and we want to make it as special a year as we can.

"The missed opportunities sometimes are remembered more than the successes. Sometimes those memories never go away," Hendricks added. "We don't want this to be a missed opportunity and our staff is working its tail off to prepare the kids for this game. I'll never question the effort of anybody in this program."

"This is a new experience for our school, our team and our town and we want to make the most of it," Lind added.

Pat Miller

Pat Miller is the sports editor at the Pioneer.

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