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INDOOR FOOTBALL: Receiver Balentine has offered versatility to Axemen

Ryan Balentine of the Axemen has been Bemidji’s top receiver and most versatile player this season. Tonight we will face his former team, Green Bay. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI -- To say that Bemidji Axemen head coach Robert Fuller and wide receiver Ryan Balentine have a close relationship would be an understatement.

Last season Fuller brought Balentine in as a rookie for the Green Bay Blizzard, and when Fuller was named head coach of the Axemen, one of his first actions was bringing in Balentine to lead his receiving corps.

“Ryan and I have been close,” Fuller said. “I brought him into Green Bay last season and he and I maintained contact throughout the offseason. Once I took this job, it just seemed like a natural progression for both of us if he would come here.”

For Balentine, the move to Bemidji was a no-brainer, despite leading the Blizzard with 74 catches, 834 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2013.

“I knew it was a new team and I needed a fresh start,” Balentine said. “I had a few problems in Green Bay and coach Fuller luckily got this position so I took advantage of the opportunity.”

Along with his play-making ability at wide receiver, one of Balentine’s biggest assets to the Axemen this season has been his versatility.

“With the small rosters, having players that can play multiple positions is critical to a team’s success,” Fuller said. “Having someone as athletic as Ryan that can play any position well is a huge benefit for us.”

With quarterbacks Hunter Wanket and Josh Aakre sidelined with injuries, Balentine stepped up and delivered four total touchdowns as the emergency quarterback in a 33-14 win over the Wyoming Cavalry two weeks ago.

“I had some experience at the college level of playing quarterback, and even though my main position now is wide receiver, whenever coach asks me of something I will be ready to step up,” Balentine said.

Just as he did in Green Bay, Balentine leads Bemidji’s receivers in all receiving categories with 27 catches for 460 yards and four touchdowns.

“Ryan is improving as a professional on and off the field,” Fuller said. “He has taken a huge step forward this year in every aspect.”

His experience in the IFL has been instrumental for a receiving corps that features rookies Nick Truesdell and Philander Browder.

“To have a veteran receiver come in has obviously helped our offense,” Fuller said. “His leadership in the heat of the battle has also been a great asset to our team.”

“I just told them to try to stay more focused,” Balentine added. “I wanted them to know not to take things personally and come ready to work every day.”

Balentine said the team is not using being an expansion team as an excuse and they are not satisfied with a sub-.500 record of 3-4.

“We are still looking for a win every week,” Balentine said. “We just want to come ready to work hard and improve every day.”

The Axemen will host Balentine’s former team, the Green Bay Blizzard, today at 7:05 p.m. at the Sanford Center. As part of tonight’s Military Appreciation celebration, Bemidji will be wearing special uniforms that will be auctioned off after the game to benefit the Homes for Heroes.

“We, as a football team, are honored to represent the veterans in our community with our military appreciation night,” Fuller said. “For us to be able to help the Homes for Heroes project is an absolute honor for all of us.”