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FOOTBALL: Jacks are section champs again; Bemidji holds on for 25-22 win over Brainerd

The Bemidji High School football team hoists the first place plaque after winning the Section 8-5A title Friday at Chet Anderson Stadium. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)1 / 4
Bemidji High School senior Caleb Grant leaps into the end zone after scoring the Lumberjacks’ first touchdown of Friday’s Section 8-5A championship game at Chet Anderson Stadium. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 4
Bemidji High School senior Ryan Bieberdorf battles Brainerd’s Ben Staehling for a pass during the Jacks’ Section 8-5A championship Friday at Chet Anderson Stadium. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)3 / 4
Bemidji High School sophomore James Williams carries the football down the sideline during the Lumberjacks’ Section 8-5A championship at Chet Anderson Stadium on Friday. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)4 / 4

BEMIDJI -- For the first time since 2014, the Bemidji High School football team is headed to the state tournament.

Senior defensive back Zach Priewe intercepted a Brainerd pass with seven seconds to play to seal the 25-22 win for the top-seeded Lumberjacks in the Section 8-5A championship game Friday night at Chet Anderson Stadium.

“I’m just happy for these kids,” said head coach Troy Hendricks. “It’s every team’s goal to go to state and these kids have worked really hard. And we kind of lost our way for a couple years. They wanted to make sure that they accomplished their goals, and their goals were to win a section title. I couldn’t be prouder of this bunch of 70-80 kids right now.”

Running back Caleb Grant ran for two touchdowns to lead the team with 156 rushing yards on 26 carries. The senior had been waiting four years for the chance to go to state.

“It means so much,” Grant said of winning a section title. “Seeing the seniors from my freshman year, I knew with hard work we could be something great and that’s what everyone showed. They put in the time, and I put in so many hours and it’s just a true blessing to be here.”

Grant gave the Lumberjacks (9-1) their first two touchdowns, both in the first half. The first came from 21 yards out as Bemidji took an early 6-0 lead.

The second-seeded Warriors (6-4) answered as quarterback Sam Miller connected with a wide-open Owen Davis for a 42-yard touchdown pass as Brainerd moved ahead, 7-6, to end the first quarter.

Grant galloped 18 yards to his second touchdown of the night early in the second quarter to put the Jacks back on top, 12-7.

However, it was Brainerd that went to halftime with a 15-12 lead. On a trick play, receiver Brady Anderson hit fellow wideout Gabe Smith with an eight-yard pass for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:52 to play in the half.

Trailing by three points at the break, Hendricks told his team to relax.

“I thought they were a little worked up,” said the coach, “and they were beating themselves rather than playing as a unit. (I told them) just to relax, have fun and play football again.”

On the opening drive of the second half, senior Cole Milz made up for his missed extra point in the first half by nailing a 25-yard field goal to level the score at 15-15.

The Warriors had barely begun their first drive of the half when they coughed the ball up to Bemidji on a run play as the Lumberjacks recovered at their own 48 yard line.

At just the right time, senior quarterback Jacob Beberg and senior receiver Ryan Bieberdorf conjured their trademark chemistry, connecting on a 52-yard touchdown pass as Bemidji regained a 22-15 advantage.

As the game entered the fourth quarter, Brainerd took advantage of an interception to march for a 62-yard drive. Running back Ben Staehling tied the game at 22-all on his two-yard carry with 10:48 to play.

The Lumberjacks drove 61 yards on the ensuing possession, but were stopped on third down. Milz converted his second field goal of the game, this one from 26 yards, to put Bemidji ahead, 25-22.

After a defensive stop, the Jacks got the ball back, only to fumble it out of bounds to give Brainerd the ball at the Bemidji 30 yard line. The Lumberjack defense came up with another big stop, forcing a 4-and-out as the offense took over with about three minutes to play.

Bemidji drove deep into Warrior territory but Brainerd halted Beberg’s fourth-down keeper to get the ball back at their own 23 yard line with 33 seconds to play. Brainerd got to its own 43, but Priewe started the Lumberjacks’ celebrations with his game-clinching interception.

Just as their regular season meeting came by just five points -- a 12-7 Bemidji win -- these longtime rivals always provide a nailbiter.

“Every time we play Brainerd it seems to go down to the last series,” Hendricks said.

The Lumberjacks will square off with Section 7-5A champion Cambridge-Isanti (7-3) in a Class 5A state quarterfinal game Saturday, Nov. 10 at St. Cloud State. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m.

Understandably, Grant struggled to describe how much reaching state means to him.

“I can’t even begin to fathom how hard everyone’s worked,” Grant said. “I don’t have words right now.”

Bemidji 25, Brainerd 22

BRD 7 8 0 7 -- 22

BJI 6 6 10 3 -- 25

First Quarter

BJI-2:03, 21 yd TD run Grant (Milz kick no good).

BRD-1:09, Davis 42 yd TD pass from Miller (Henke kick).

Second Quarter

BJI-9:45, Grant 18 yd TD run (2-pt conv. no good).

BRD-2:52, Smith 8 yd TD pass from Anderson (2-pt conv. good).

Third Quarter

BJI-8:07, Milz 25 yd field goal.

BJI-7:10, Bieberdorf 52 yd TD pass from Beberg (Milz kick).

Fourth Quarter

BRD-10:48, Staehling 2 yd TD run (Henke kick).

BJI-8:20, Milz 26 yd field goal.

Austin Monteith

Austin Monteith is a sports reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He is an Illinois native and a Butler University graduate. Follow him on Twitter @amonteith92.

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