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FOOTBALL: Lumberjacks to begin hunt for third state banner

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)

BEMIDJI -- In the team huddle after wrapping up practice on the Bemidji High School basketball court due to snow and darkness, head coach Troy Hendricks mentioned the two football banners hanging on the wall at the end of the gym.

The banners were for the program’s state semifinalist appearance in 2012 and a state runner-up finish in 2011, and the Lumberjacks’ quest for a third starts at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10 when the they take on Cambridge-Isanti at St. Cloud State’s Husky Stadium.

“We’ve talked about it a couple times. Being in the gym, you might as well look at them,” Hendricks said. “For this bunch, they’ve been through, as seniors, where they saw us dip as young kids and then built it back, and for them to have an opportunity to hang a banner, that’s pretty cool.”

Cambridge-Isanti (7-3) is known for its running game, led by senior backs Ryley Nelson and Kaden Slepica. In the Section 7-5A final against Andover, Nelson rushed 24 times for 117 yards while Slepica had 114 rushing yards on 23 carries.

“They run the rock really well,” Hendricks said. “They’re a Wing-T football team that has multiple weapons to run the ball. They’ve got a kid that's 5-foot-nothing and 185 pounds and is very agile and explosive, and then they’ve got a 215-pound back that is a very tough, hard runner on top of that.”

The Bluejackets, one of two teams in the tournament with more than two losses this season, score 37.6 points per game while allowing 28.9 points per game. Hendricks said he was happy to see the Jacks matched up against them on the bracket.

“We’re somewhat familiar with Section 7. We used to be in Section 7,” Hendricks said. “So they may like their draw. I like our draw. I like the opportunity to play anybody, but to play Cambridge – a tough, physical football team that’s very big – we are going to have to play our tails off. But if we execute, do our jobs and play to their physicality, we’ve got a lot of playmakers that can make plays.”

Husky Stadium is a venue the Lumberjacks have already seen this season. They won their regular season finale over St. Cloud Tech, 31-30, in overtime to go into the Section 8 playoffs 9-1. That game is one Bemidji will be able to draw from on Saturday while playing in the same building.

“As a coaching staff we’ve been there multiple times, but for the kids, I think it was good to be there,” Hendricks said. “They know what to expect. The environment is going to be similar, and the team is going to be very similar to St. Cloud Tech. That was a great game for us from a lot of different standpoints.”

Bemidji and C-I had two common opponents in the regular season, Sartell-St. Stephen and Rogers. The Jacks beat Sartell, 50-6, in week seven, while the Bluejackets topped the same team, 30-0, in their season opener. Bemidji defeated Rogers 31-7, and C-I did, as well, by a score of 21-7.

“It’s going to take three phases,” Hendricks said. “We have to get them in situations where they’ve got to go the length of the field. We can give them short fields. We can’t turn the rock over. Moving forward from the section championship game to this game to the next game, however long we can go, momentum is always so critical. If you get it, you want to keep it, and turnovers are a great way to get momentum and to lose momentum.”

Everything considered, Hendricks said the game will come down to the team who wants it more. The Jacks are in the state tournament for the first time since 2014, while the Bluejackets haven’t seen state action since 2005.

The winner of Saturday’s game advances to the semifinals to face the winner between St. Thomas Academy (10-0) and Tartan (8-2). The semifinal game will be played at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17, at U.S. Bank Stadium.

“They would really put their stamp on this program,” Hendricks said on what a win Saturday would mean for the Lumberjacks. “There’s only two banners out there that are state placewinners, so they would have that opportunity. That would be pretty special in my mind.”

If you go

Who: Bemidji vs. Cambridge-Isanti

What: Class 5A state quarterfinals

Where: Husky Stadium, St. Cloud

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10

Radio: Lumberjack Radio Network/104.5 FM