FOOTBALL: Bemidji falls to rival Brainerd 24-20 in final minutes of close game
BRAINERD — When the Bemidji coaching staff analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of the Lumberjacks and Brainerd the coaches came to only one conclusion.
“We knew the game was going to come down to the final minutes,” BHS head coach Troy Hendricks said.
The coaches proved to be prophets but, unfortunately, Brainerd held the upper hand in those final minutes.
Warriors quarterback Thomas Stoxen hit Cole Harmer in the far left corner of the end zone with a 19-yard touchdown pass with 2:33 to play to give the Warriors a 24-20 lead. Bemidji gained one first down in the final march but quarterback James Hendricks was intercepted on a fourth-down pass with 1:37 to go and Brainerd cemented bragging rights in the Section 7-5A rankings with Saturday’s 24-20 victory.
“This was a fun game. This was a great game,” the coach said. “Other than the ending.”
Bemidji entered Saturday’s battle ranked fourth in the Minnesota Class 5A Associated Press state rankings while Brainerd was third. At the start the game seemed like a possible mis-match as Brainerd took advantage of a few big plays to open a 14-0 advantage early in the second period.
The Lumberjacks battled back, however, and trailed only 17-14 at intermission.
With 5:17 to go in the game BHS took its only lead when Tanner Boes scored from 5 yards out to give Bemidji a 20-17 cushion.
But, as the No. 3 rated team in the state should, Brainerd answered with its late TD.
“Brainerd is a very good team and we knew it would respond to what we did,” said Bemidji quarterback James Hendricks. “Brainerd brought it when it counted.”
The Warriors held the edge in the early going and used the big play to score on its first possession.
After forcing a BHS punt Brainerd took over at its 25 yard line and on the third play of the drive Stoxen connected with Logan McElfresh on a 77-yard catch and run. McElfresch found an opening behind the Jacks secondary and caught Stoxen’s 15-yard floater. Once behind the defense the wide receiver raced along the left sideline all the way to the 2-yard line.
Conor Gessell capped the march with a 1-yard run and Brainerd was on top 7-0 midway through the period.
Brainerd also won the game of field possession in the first half and three minutes into the second stanza the Warriors upped their lead to 14-0 when Logan Davis found the end zone on a 2-yard run. His scamper capped a 4-play march that began on the BHS 31 following a short Bemidji punt.
Brainerd probably knew that it wouldn’t be able to contain Bemidji’s offense forever and midway through the second period the Lumberjacks went to work. Starting at their own 15-yard line the Jacks went 85 yards in eight plays. Highlighting the drive was a 32-yard scramble by James Hendricks and a 14-yard run by Tanner Boes.
Ryan Hirt did the scoring honor as he nabbed Hendricks’ pass at the 5-yard line and bulled his way into the end zone to cap the 26-yard play.
“My job is to run my hardest and blow through the line,” Boes said. “Offensively our plan was to throw over the top when it was available and then hit Brainerd in the mouth with the run.”
The Warriors answered with a 65-yard drive that culminated with McElfresh’s 30-yard field goal with 2:05 to play in the half but Hendricks and his offensive teammates zipped through Brainerd’s defense in the final two minutes and closed the halftime gap to 17-14 when Hendricks scored on a 22-yard run and Boes ran in the 2-point conversion.
“Tanner is one of the best running backs in the state,” James Hendricks said. “He gives it his all every time he touches the ball and he is one of the keys to our offense.”
Defense dominated the third quarter and the 17-14 score continued into the final 12 minutes. The Lumberjacks gained possession at their 14-yard line late in the third period and began a drive that consumed more than eight minutes. With 5:17 to play in the game Boes gave BHS its first lead when he found the end zone on a 16-yard run. The PAT boot was wide but Bemidji finally had overcome its early deficit and had taken the lead.
“But we knew it wasn’t over,” Boes said. “Our defense was very strong but Brainerd was able to get a few big plays that made a big difference.”
One of those plays came on the final drive when Stoxen connected with Cole Smith on a 50-yard pass along the left sideline. That play gave the Warriors a first down on the BHS 8-yard line and three plays later Stoxen teamed with Harmer for the winning TD pass.
“Brainerd was able to make the third down plays,” Troy Hendricks said. “I thought it was a great game and it was very fun to be part of it.
“After the game I asked the team if this game had any impact on our ultimate goal which is to play in the Metrodome,” the coach continued. “And the team told me ‘No’. I also asked them if Brainerd is a team they would like to see again in the playoffs and they all said ‘Yes.’”
The Lumberjacks may have that wish granted as Bemidji and Brainerd could meet again in the section tournament. And if they do, odds are that the playoff game will also go down to the wire.
“This game proved that we can beat Brainerd if we meet again and it proved that we can play with the best teams in the state,” James Hendricks said. “Hopefully, we’ll have the chance to meet Brainerd again down the road.”
Hendricks ran for 103 yards on 19 carries while Boes gained 95 yards on 20 runs. Hirt caught four passes for 71 yards and Hendricks completed 8 of his 15 passes.
Saturday’s result dropped the Lumberjacks to 5-1 while Brainerd improved to 6-0. Bemidji returns home Friday when it will host Alexandria.
Brainerd 24, Bemidji 20
Bemidji0 14 0 6 – 20
Brainerd7 10 0 7 – 24
Bra-Gessell, 1-run. PAT-McElfresh kick. 5:51
Bra-Davis, 2-run. PAT-McElfresh kick. 3:38
B-Hirt, 26-pass from Hendricks. PAT-kick blocked. 7:03
Bra-McElfresh, 30-FG. 9:55
Bem-Hendricks, 22-run. PAT-Boes run. 11:24
Bem-Boes, 6-run. PAT-kick wide. 6:43
Bra-Davis, 9-pass from Stoxen. PAT-McElfresh kick. 9:27