BEMIDJI -- A chill nipped the air Wednesday night at Chet Anderson Stadium, indicating that fall football weather had arrived -- and with it, the nearing of the playoffs for the Bemidji High School football team.
The Lumberjacks will have to wait until next week to start their journey toward a section title, but they took the first step Wednesday, dispatching Sartell-St. Stephen 28-12 to improve to 4-3 and give themselves the inside track to the No. 3 seed in Section 8-5A.
“We've come a long way from early in the season to where we're in right now,” head coach Bryan Stoffel said. “Obviously we'd like to have some things back, and especially in the second half, I thought we took our foot off the gas, and we learned a hard lesson that we can't do that in order to expect to be successful.”
About that -- the Jacks raced out to a 28-6 halftime lead on the strength of 21 second-quarter points and two touchdowns by tailback Gemini Ellis, but they failed to score in the second half. The game was never in serious jeopardy down the stretch, but BHS knows it has to be better to fulfill its dreams of a section title.
"We got the W, but we need some work done,” Ellis said. “So we'll just start there first and build on that.”
The sheen of Bemidji’s scoring surge wore off after halftime, as the Sabres made it clear they would not fold. Embarking on an 84-yard drive early in the third quarter, they paid it off when Gavin Schulte tossed a 17-yard touchdown to Anthony Mahowald to cut the deficit to 16.
Sartell-St. Stephen drove into Lumberjack territory multiple other times in the half. One reached the Jacks’ 22-yard line and another their 9 after an interception by Peyton Neadeau, but on both occasions, the BHS defense bowed its neck braces and stopped the Sabres for turnovers on downs.
“Hats off to Sartell in the second half,” Stoffel said. “I thought they played really well. They played some inspired football, and left us with some things needing to be fixed.”
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. The Lumberjacks finished with a double-digit win and showcased sparks on offense in the first half. They rode Ellis, a 55-yard touchdown run by Ethan Biehn and a 22-yard TD pass from Jack Larson to Gavin Luksik on fourth-and-goal to stack scores quickly. The success was notable, as Bemidji moved the ball efficiently on the ground and through the air despite having only two practices between games to perfect their play calls.
"We were just doing a really nice job of mixing run and pass there for a time, and we also did a nice job executing on option football,” Stoffel said. “And so when we execute, when we get a hat on a hat, we got athletes that can make plays, and that's kind of what we saw in that second quarter.”
Ellis, one of those athletes, ran over innumerable Sabres defenders and danced around several others on his way to a prolific day on the ground, including the two second-quarter scores. Though he showcased the capacity to dispense lightning and thunder in equal measure, Ellis said his running style revolves mostly around instinct.
“Honestly, I really don't think about it,” he said. “I do what feels right, and whatever I do, it happens. So if I'm running through a hole and I feel like I can run them over, then I'm going to run them over. If I feel like I need to get around them and get into some extra room, then that's what I'm going to do.”
With the Lumberjacks’ offense humming in the first half, the home crowd was whipped into a defrosted frenzy. In an unproductive second half, the icy air froze out most of the fans’ enthusiasm.
Ahead of a likely home playoff game next Tuesday, continuing their success while fixing their failures will put the Jacks in position to grab a playoff win and push one step closer to the section crown.
“It comes back to focus for us,” Stoffel said. “And if our focus is where it needs to be, we typically operate pretty well.”
Bemidji will learn its section opponent Thursday, Oct. 21, and will likely play Tuesday, Oct. 26, in the quarterfinal round of the 8-5A playoffs.
Gianna McKeon honored at halftime
Gianna McKeon, the daughter of Lumberjacks assistant coach Jim McKeon, was honored at halftime as part of Bemidji’s Tackle Cancer night.
Gianna was diagnosed with telangiectatic osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, in February. She and the McKeon family have been traveling to Minneapolis regularly for her to undergo treatment at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.
“It's fantastic to have coach McKeon back,” Stoffel said. “I know it meant a lot to him and his family for Gianna to be out here. Gianna was really excited to be here. That has been her goal since back in February. And so I know she was just elated to be out on the field, and we were just so happy to have her here.
“And we continue to wish her the best of luck and offer up our support to not only her, but their family with everything that they're battling through. If it was just a small little moment to forget about everything that's going on in their life, I think it was worth it.”
Bemidji 28, Sartell-St. Stephen 12
SSS 6 0 6 0 -- 12
BHS 7 21 0 0 -- 28
First quarter -- SSS TD, Henrichs 86-yard catch from Schulte (2-pt conversion no good), 6-0 SSS; BHS TD, Luksik 22-yard catch from Larson (Peterson PAT good), 7-6 BHS.
Second quarter -- BHS TD, Ellis 5-yard run (Peterson PAT good), 14-6 BHS; BHS TD, Ellis 7-yard run (Peterson PAT no good), 20-6 BHS; BHS TD, Biehn 55-yard run (2-pt conversion good), 28-6 BHS.
Third quarter -- SSS TD, Mahowald 17-yard catch from Schulte (2-pt conversion no good), 28-12 BHS.
Fourth quarter -- No scoring.