Bemidji football team defeats Mankato West 45-26 to advance to state title game
For the first time this season, the Bemidji football team was considered the underdog when the Lumberjacks faced Mankato West in the semifinals of the Class 4A football tournament on Friday afternoon at the Metrodome.
The Jacks players and coaches, however, couldn't understand the experts looking at Friday's matchup from that perspective.
"We took that personally," said BHS quarterback Mitchell Hendricks. "The experts picked us to lose by 20 points to Mankato West and we didn't think that was right. And we wanted to do something about it."
Bemidji threw the predictions of the so-called experts back into their collective faces as the Lumberjacks advanced to the state finals with a 45-26 victory over the previously unbeaten Scarlets.
The Jacks spotted Mankato West a 14-0 lead before their offense ever hit the field.
As a team, Bemidji overcame the early deficit and decisively proved that Bemidji was the better team.
Ironically, after the game the Lumberjacks did not celebrate.
Considering they just defeated the top-ranked team in the state, the post-game activity was subdued.
"We really haven't accomplished anything yet," senior linebacker James Bofferding said. "Our goal is the state championship. We're one step closer, but we're not there yet."
Mankato West came into Friday's contest with the top-ranked offense in Class 4A. Led by quarterback Phil Nelson, who will be playing for the University of Minnesota next season, the Scarlets took the opening drive and marched 73 yards in nine plays for the touchdown.
Bemidji fumbled the ensuing kickoff and, after Mankato West recovered at the Bemidji 20, Nelson connected with wide receiver Hunter Friesen for a 20-yard touchdown and the Scarlets were ahead 14-0.
"There might have been a little panic in the boys' eyes after we were down 14-0," head coach Troy Hendricks admitted. "But it didn't hurt that once the offense came onto the field, we scored right away."
Quarterback Mitchell Hendricks and the offense started its drive at the Bemidji 20 and wasted no time establishing control.
Zach Declusin provided the initial first down with a 5-yard run, and a pass down the left sideline to Cody Rutledge consumed 50 yards and gave the Lumberjacks a first down at the Mankato West 17.
After Mitch Brown's 5-yard run and an incomplete pass, Brown put Bemidji on the scoreboard with a powerful 11-yard run.
"We were a little scared at the start, but we rallied as a team," Rutledge said. "We were confident that we could come back and win and when the offense scored we knew we were on our way."
The defense stiffened and limited Nelson and his offense to a 22-yard field goal on Mankato West's next possession and, although the Scarlets did score, the tide was turning in Bemidji's favor.
When Carey Woods took a pitch from Mitchell Hendricks and raced 92 yards for a touchdown around the left end on the first play of the following drive, the Scarlets were on the ropes.
"Mankato West is a very good team with many weapons, but defensively we just wanted to stay in our coverages and keep the receivers in front of us," defensive back Dom Hayle said.
Bemidji's defense accomplished those tasks for the final three periods as Mankato West's vaunted attack managed only nine points following its explosive 17-point start.
The Lumberjack offense, meanwhile, was just getting started.
In the decisive second quarter, Woods caught a 61-yard TD pass from Hendricks and Rutledge teamed with Hendricks for a 5-yard touchdown grab Mankato West managed only a field goal during the same span.
"Defensively we just had to get into the flow of the game," said BHS defensive coordinator Mike Fogelson. "We needed to play our positions and be more disciplined.
"We weren't settled in at the start and that is why we got behind early. Luckily the offense got right into it and got us rolling," Fogelson added.
Kyle Fodness drilled a 31-yard field goal early in the third quarter to give the Jacks a 31-20 lead, but Nelson weaved his way through the BHS defense for a 67-yard touchdown scamper in the period's final minute.
That touchdown, however, was Mankato West's last hurrah while the Lumberjacks offense capped the victory with Hendricks' 67-yard pass to Woods midway through the stanza and Hendricks' 46-yard run two minutes later.
"We knew we had to score points to counter Mankato West's offense," Mitchell Hendricks said. "It is great for me to have so many weapons. If we need a flea-flicker we go to Alex Fenson. If we need tough yards we go to Mitch (Brown) and Zach (Declusin). If we need a long pass we go to Carey (Woods) or Cody (Rutledge). We can to go anybody at any time.
"I just look at who is open and we just go that way," the quarterback added by employing that philosophy the Lumberjacks collected 551 yards on 51 plays. Woods gained 106 yards on only two runs while Brown ran 14 times for 45 yards.
Hendricks completed 10 of his 19 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns.
Nelson threw 42 times and completed 24 of them for 307 yards and two scores. He also ran 25 times for 193 yards and a touchdown.
"Nelson is a special player but we have a bunch of special players," Fogelson said.
"Winning this game feels great," Hayle said. "This has been a goal for three years and now we only have one more goal to accomplish."
The final journey will come at 3 p.m. on Nov. 26 when Bemidji plays either Rocori or Hill Murray in the 4A final at the Metrodome. Those teams play Saturday and the winner will take on the Jacks.
"Teams from the North don't get the respect that the city or South teams get and we don't like that," Hendricks said. "I think we might have changed that (perception) with the way we beat Mankato West. And I think we might have changed that for good."
Bemidji 14 14 3 14 - 45
Mankato West 17 3 6 0 - 26
MW-Friesen, 25-pass from Nelson. PAT-Leitch kick. 2:29 MW-Friesen, 20-pas from Nelson. PAT-Leitch kick. 2:39 B-Brown, 11-run. PAT-Fodness kick. 5:13 MW-Leitch, 22-FG. 9:57 B-Woods, 92-run. PAT-Fodness kick. 10:15 Second Quarter B-Woods, 61-pass from Hendricks. PAT-Fodness kick. 1:44 MW-Leitch, 33-FG. 5:41 B-Rutledge, 5-pass from Hendricks. PAT-Fodness kick. 11:23 Third Quarter B-Fodness, 31-FG. 9:25 MW-Nelson, 67-run. PAT-Pass fail. 11:09 Fourth Quarter B-Woods, 67-pass from Hendricks. PAT-Fodnesskick. 4:36 B-Hendricks, 46-run. PAT-Fodness kick. 6:42