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AXEMEN: Bemidji suffers second straight loss, falls to Tri-Cities, 54-35

Bemidji Axemen quarterback E.J. White scrambles away from the Tri-Cities defense during the second quarter of Friday night’s game at the Sanford Center. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer1 / 2
Axeman linebacker Jory Johnson intercepts a pass from the Tri-Cities quarterback in Bemidji's loss to the Fever Friday night at the Sanford Center.2 / 2

BEMIDJI — When the Tri-Cities Fever’s quarterback Houston Lillard left the game in the first drive with a leg injury, his team needed someone else to carry them to victory.

The Fever (4-2) turned to running back Andrew Pierce one play after Lillard left for a two-yard touchdown.

Pierce would carry the ball into the endzone four more times as he led Tri-Cities to a 54-35 win against the Bemidji Axemen (2-4) in Indoor Football League action Friday night at the Sanford Center.

He ended the night with 57 yards rushing including a 13-yard touchdown run.

“We game planned against (Lillard) a lot because he’s one of the great quarterbacks in this league,” Wooten said. “We weren’t expecting them to run going in and in the second half we adapted, but we got down too soon.”

Running the ball for Bemidji on the night was Mulku Kalokoh.

Kalokoh was the IFL’s Offensive Player of the Week two weeks ago at Green Bay, but has been stopped since.

Wooten wanted to get Kalokoh 15 to 17 carries in the game to get him running again, but Kalokoh had just nine rushes for 23 yards and one touchdown.

The former Special Teams Player of the Week also had a kick return for a touchdown, his fourth of the year, which leads the IFL.

“They were putting two in the box to try and stop him,” Wooten said. “We’ve got to do a better job of passing the ball to make things easier for him.”

With the running game stalling, the Axemen needed to turn to the passing game.

Quarterback EJ White was 8-of-20 passing for 90 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

White’s one touchdown was an 11-yard pass to Sheldon Galloway on the team’s first drive. He struggled to find any consistency the rest of the game and was replaced by wide receiver Ryan Balentine after the interception in the third quarter.

“Balentine is a great player, but he’s a great player at wide receiver,” Wooten said. “We’re going to try and find a quarterback so EJ can learn more in the future.”

Balentine, a former junior college quarterback and IFL First Team receiver, played well in his quarter-plus behind center.

He completed 10-of-19 passes for 94 yards and a 13-yard touchdown to Josh Jarboe while rushing for 26 yards and another touchdown.

Jarboe had eight catches for 84 yards and a touchdown to lead the Axemen receivers.

“I’ve been a quarterback my whole life until I went to college,” Balentine said. “Wherever coach needs me to play, I’m willing to play there.”

Michael Box filled in for the injured Lillard, who came into the game second in the IFL in passing attempts, completions and yards, and was 7-of-15 passing for 113 yards,one touchdown and two interceptions.

One pick was by linebacker Jory Johnson with the game tied 7-7 in the first quarter while the other was by Scooter Rogers with the score 51-29 in the fourth.

The touchdown came on a 34-yard pass to a wide open Steven Whitehead after Tony Grimes fell on the coverage.

“We played very well in the secondary,” Wooten said. “Our secondary is playing good ball right now.”

The Axemen will be back on the turf at 7:05 p.m. next Saturday, April 18, when they take on Cedar Rapids at the Sanford Center.

After losing two-straight, Bemidji will be looking to end its second two-game losing streak of the season.

“You can’t say bad words about a team that’s not willing to give up,” Balentine said. “I give my team props for that, they were willing to fight, we just need to come out a little earlier.”