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Gang Green Machine: Transcendent season nets Bemidji State football Pioneer Team of the Year

The 2021 edition of BSU football finally broke through, compiling a sterling regular-season record of 9-2 and clinching a spot in the tournament field after winning seven straight games to end the season.

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The Beavers celebrate with the NSIC North championship trophy after defeating U-Mary 62-40 on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, at Chet Anderson Stadium. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
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The Bemidji State football team had been so close so many times.

The Beavers had been knocking on the door of the NCAA Tournament for years, but something always seemed to dam them up at the wrong time. The culprits were various, but the result was always the same – never, in 95 years of football, had Bemidji State advanced to the postseason.

But not this time.

The 2021 edition of BSU football finally broke through, compiling a sterling regular-season record of 9-2 and clinching a spot in the tournament field after winning seven straight games to end the season. Not only that, Bemidji State avenged a regular-season loss to a nationally ranked Augustana team in the first round.

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Bemidji State freshman Sam McGath (17) powers into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter of an NCAA Tournament game against Augustana on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Sioux Falls, S.D. (BSU photo)

All that added up to one new award: The Pioneer has named BSU football as its 2021-22 Team of the Year.

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First introduced in 2020, the Pioneer Team of the Year award is meant to annually recognize the accomplishments of one area team from the preceding school year that most impressed fans and media alike.

There were many moments that led up to the Beavers’ formative experience. Take a look back at the journey of the best football season in Bemidji State history.

Strong start, early stumble

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“Don’t show it,” Bemidji State quarterback Brandon Alt tells his teammates following a disappointing homecoming loss to Augustana on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Chet Anderson Stadium. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Bemidji State got off to a quick start to the year, earning a 24-16 victory over a Sioux Falls team receiving votes in the national polls. The Beavers then returned home and posted a comfortable 38-28 win over Wayne State.

Then 2-0, BSU traveled to Mankato to face No. 19 Minnesota State. The nationally recognized Mavericks were too much for the Beavers, and the latter lost 45-24.

That set up an anticipated homecoming matchup with No. 22 Augustana. Bemidji State had not lost a homecoming game – and the celebratory jump into Lake Bemidji that a win portended – in 10 years. But not only did they lose the game, they were doubled up on the scoreboard in a demoralizing 52-24 loss to the Vikings.

“Augustana is a very good football team, and they beat us today,” head coach Brent Bolte said after the game. “But we’re better than 52-24.”

What Bolte didn’t know was that his words from that day would border on prophetic.

The long road back

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The Bemidji State defense stops Minnesota Duluth running back Cazz Martin (28) during a BSU win on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Duluth. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)

Facing likely elimination from NCAA Tournament contention with another loss at any point, the Beavers recovered to string together three straight wins against unranked conference foes Minot State, Concordia-St. Paul and Minnesota State Moorhead. The MSUM victory also featured a last-minute comeback, and Malik Williams’ fourth-down touchdown catch clinched a 22-19 win despite a 19-0 halftime hole.

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All that set up a crucial road showdown at No. 16 Minnesota Duluth. BSU had not won in Duluth since 1941. But, much like during the then-Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, it was a New Deal this Saturday.

Facing a 35-21 deficit at the end of the third quarter, Bemidji State took control of the game with a 21-0 fourth quarter, notching a 42-35 win in a city that had tormented them for decades.

The triumph gave the Beavers pole position in the NSIC North Division standings, setting up a realistic path to the tournament for the first time all year.

Pins and needles

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Bemidji State’s Malik Williams (6) and Dhel Duncan-Busby (14) celebrate Williams’ touchdown in the second quarter against U-Mary on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, at Chet Anderson Stadium. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

From there, all BSU had to do was avoid slipping up in a manner like they had done in the past. Bemidji State handled Southwest Minnesota State in a 48-14 home win, then survived a road tilt with Northern State, defeating the Wolves 36-34 in Aberdeen, S.D.

For their final test of the season, the Beavers would have to defeat U-Mary back at Chet Anderson Stadium.

BSU started out strong against the Marauders, racing to a 13-0 first-quarter lead. The Beavers fortified their standing in the second quarter, seizing a 27-7 advantage.

But it couldn’t be that easy. U-Mary wouldn’t go away, scoring back-to-back touchdowns to make it 27-20. Making matters more interesting, a light snowfall that started early in the game intensified in the second quarter, producing a whiteout on the field.

Yet the Beavers answered the Marauders – and the elements – with two scores of their own, taking a decisive 41-20 lead by the end of the third quarter. The two teams traded touchdowns from there, but U-Mary couldn’t close the gap. Bemidji State secured a triumphant 62-40 win and an assured spot in the NCAA Tournament.

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Breaking through

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The Beavers react to hearing their name called in the NCAA Selection Show on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, in Bemidji State’s Hagg-Sauer Hall. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

The Beavers enjoyed the spoils of their achievements the next day. Filing into Hagg-Sauer Hall to watch the tournament selection show, Bemidji State knew it was in the field.

BSU did not, however, know which team or where it would play. After waiting patiently for three regions to be revealed, the Beavers finally got their moment when the fourth region was disclosed.

They would face Augustana in Sioux Falls, setting up an opportunity for sweet revenge – and Bemidji State’s first-ever tournament win.

BSU wasted no time hitting the ground running against the Vikings the following Saturday, taking a 14-3 first-quarter lead on touchdown catches by Brendan Beaulieu and Williams. Williams caught another touchdown in the second quarter to give the Beavers a 21-10 lead heading into halftime.

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Bemidji State senior Malik Williams (6) races downfield during an NCAA Tournament game against Augustana on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Sioux Falls, S.D. (BSU photo)

Augustana came out of the break and sailed swiftly down the turf for back-to-back scores, wresting the lead away from Bemidji State’s grasp.

The Beavers trailed 24-21 entering the final quarter. But with its season on the line, BSU came through once again. This time, it was backup quarterback Sam McGath who raced in for a two-yard touchdown to put the Beavers back on top 28-24.

And after linebacker Gabe Ames batted away a fourth-down Augie pass attempt in the final seconds, Bemidji State had its first playoff win in program history locked up.

The road ends here

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Bemidji State senior Josh Wleh (75) prays with teammates following the Beavers' NCAA Tournament game against Colorado School of Mines on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in Golden, Colo. (BSU photo)

Bemidji State then advanced to face top-seeded Colorado School of Mines in the second round of the tournament. Despite high hopes of an upset, the Beavers were dealt a sobering dose of reality.

The Orediggers plowed through BSU in Golden, Colo., finishing with a 55-6 victory to breeze to the Division II quarterfinals. But despite the gloomy finish, Bemidji State still celebrated the leap the program had finally made successfully after so many stumbles in the past.

“I hope these kids understand… we’re right there,” Bolte said after the game. “(This season) pushes us in the right direction where we want to continue to perform with BSU football.”

Legacy

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The Beavers hold the NSIC North Division championship trophy up high after defeating U-Mary 62-40 on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, at Chet Anderson Stadium. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Aside from their breakthrough in the NCAA Tournament, the Beavers had multiple individuals inscribe their names in the program’s record book.

Quarterback Brandon Alt completed the greatest passing season in BSU history, tossing 284 completions for 4,245 passing yards and 46 touchdowns, all program records. He took fifth in the balloting for the Harlon Hill award, given to the Division II player of the year.

Beaulieu and Williams broke multiple single-season receiving records. Beaulieu reset the program bar with 1,318 yards and 76 receptions, while Williams followed with 1,095 yards to top the old record. Williams also etched his name as the single-season and career touchdown receptions record-holder, finishing with 18 scores in 2021 and 27 for his career.

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Bemidji State junior Brendan Beaulieu (19) scores a touchdown in the first half against Southwest Minnesota State on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, at Chet Anderson Stadium. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

By finishing 10-3, Bemidji State also established a new school record for wins in a season.

There were multiple deserving sports teams that made history in the Bemidji area this year. For instance, Bemidji State women’s soccer advanced to the round of 16 in its NCAA Tournament for the first time ever, and Bemidji High School’s girls tennis team won its second straight section title for the first time since 2007-08.

But with its entry into the 2021 tournament, the football Beavers broke through a formidable dam of disappointment and heartbreak, washing away years of anguish to secure a coveted spot in the promised land. Coupled with the program’s first-ever postseason conquest and a rewritten record book, that makes them the 2021-22 Pioneer Team of the Year.

Pioneer Teams of the Year

2022: Bemidji State football

2021: Bemidji High School boys tennis

2020: Bemidji State men’s hockey

Christian Babcock is a sports reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer. He trekked to Bemidji from his hometown of Campbell, Calif., after graduating from the Cronkite School at Arizona State University in 2021. Follow him on Twitter at @CB_Journalist for updates on the Lumberjacks and Beavers or to suggest your favorite local restaurant.
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