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FOOTBALL: Bemidji, Sartell set to meet in battle of unbeatens

BEMIDJI — It is no surprise that the Bemidji High School football team has opened the season with three victories. When people who know the strengths and weaknesses of Minnesota’s high school teams looked at Bemidji’s schedule they saw that the first three games were against three opponents that will struggle this fall.

Grand Rapids, Sauk Rapids and Fergus Falls are a combined 0-9 to date and none of the three is expected to go far in its section playoffs.

Tonight, however, the level of competition changes dramatically as the Lumberjacks host Sartell in a battle of unbeatens. BHS has thumped Grand Rapids 49-0, Sauk Rapids 52-10 and Fergus Falls 40-8 while Sartell has disposed of St. Cloud Tech 33-10, Alexandria 40-13 and Willmar 49-14, three teams that are 3-3 excluding the losses to Sartel.

Last week’s victory over Willmar opened a few eyes as Willmar was riding high after stopping Brainerd 39-20 the previous week. At that time Brainerd was ranked No. 2 in the Class 5A Minnesota Associated Press Sports Editors’ poll.

Poll position is not always a true indicator of a team’s strength but teams that are rated among the top 10 usually deserve to be considered among the state’s best.

Tonight’s contest at BSU’s Chet Anderson Stadium matches two ranked teams as BHS is rated fifth and Sartell is sixth.

“Polls are nice but we try not to focus on them,” said Bemidji offensive coordinator and assistant head coach Bryan Stoffel. “Polls really don’t mean a ton but we do know that we are facing a quality opponent. Sartell will present many challenges and the kids are ready to face them.

“If you look at our schedule, this game will be our toughest match-up to date and potentially for the regular season. Sartell is senior laden, and experienced and these players come from a proud program,” Stoffel added.

A year ago the Lumberjacks trailed the Sabres 17-10 after three periods but rallied in the final stanza to win 31-24. Stoffel thinks that tonight’s game could be just as dramatic.

“We came back in the fourth quarter to win last year and it was a gutsy performance by our kids,” Stoffel said. “And Friday’s game definitely will be another four-quarter game. We have stressed all week to the kids that we will have to battle for four quarters. We will have to ride the ebb and flow of the game and deal with adversity when it hits. Because adversity will hit.”

Sartell’s roster includes more than 25 seniors and the Sabres will bring size and strength along with that experience to Chet Anderson Stadium tonight.

“Sartell will bring kids who have played the last couple of years,” Stoffel said. “They are very well coached and they don’t give you anything. We will have to earn everything on both sides of the ball. Sartell forces your offense to focus on an entire drive and defensively they force you to be gap sound and to finish every play.

“Our challenge on defense will be to match their physicality and their 1-2 punch in the backfield,” the coach said. “Sartell loves to run the football and if we can force them into third and long situations and force them to pass, it will play into our hands.”

The Jacks also are experienced and pride themselves in playing sound fundamental football. Those qualities will be valuable allies tonight.

“Offensively we have some skill players in positions that will stress Sartell’s defense,” Stoffel said. “Our speed and ability to make plays are among our strengths and our emphasis will be to execute and play the game to our level. We also have the advantage of playing at home in front of our fans.”

The fans should be entertained tonight as two of the premiere teams in Minnesota’s Class 5A ranks square off.

“The boys have practiced well all week and will give a solid effort,” Stoffel said. “This is going to be a blast. This is the the type of game that high school football and Friday nights are all about. On Friday two very good teams are going to collide and our kids are excited. We will be up for the challenge.”

Pat Miller

Pat Miller is the sports editor at the Pioneer.

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