The Brainerd Warriors take the first step in what they hope will be a journey deep into the postseason Tuesday night.
Second-seeded Brainerd will open the Section 8-5A playoffs by hosting the No. 7 Cambridge-Isanti Bluejackets with the winner advancing to Saturday’s semifinals. The loser packs up his gear for the season.
Brainerd finished the regular season 5-3 while the Bluejackets went 1-7, their only win 34-6 over Becker in Week 7.
“We’re coming off what I think was a very good season for us, given some of the things that have occurred,” Warriors coach Ron Stolski said. “We’re poised to make a run in playoff play.”
Cambridge dropped the final game of the regular season 20-0 to Class 4A’s 10th-ranked Rogers. The Bluejackets have struggled to score, averaging 13.5 points a game, while allowing 21.9. They have been competitive in five losses, which were by a combined average of 6.6 points.
“Our defense has stepped up,” C-I coach Mike Hennen said. “It has gotten better as the year has gone on. They’ve been playing well. We’ve been a little inconsistent on offense.”
In his first season as head coach after 13 years in the program, Hennen said a 1-7 season wasn’t expected.
“I wouldn’t say we had to start over,” he said. “We had quite a few starters returning. We felt we were close to winning a bunch of games, but obviously we didn’t come through and get the wins we needed.”
The Bluejackets are led by running back Cole Bakke, who has gained 482 yards and scored two TDs. Fullback Trent Chromy has added 368 yards and six scores.
Quarterback Clayton Jennissen, the team’s third-leading rusher with 194 yards, is a threat to throw. He has completed 54 of 126 passes (42.9 percent) for 654 yards with three TDs and five interceptions.
Ryan Epsen is the top receiver with 22 catches for 233 yards and a score. Travis Holt has 17 grabs for 145 yards and a TD.
Jennissen, who doubles as the free safety, is the team’s top tackler with 61. Holt and Bakke, who are also linebackers, have 46 stops apiece.
“Their games have been very close,” Stolski said. “I think they’re a team on the upswing. Sometimes at the end of the season you’re going in one direction or the other. Given that the section looks pretty balanced I’m pretty certain Cambridge has a good feeling coming over here.
“We played very well last week and that’s a good time to be doing it. Section football is always fun, it’s a joy. Historically, we’ve played pretty darn well in playoff play so we’ll see.”
The Warriors ended the regular season on a positive note, building a 28-7 lead against Sauk Rapids-Rice and recording a 35-13 win. Brainerd finished 5-1 in Central Lakes Conference play and earned a share of the conference title.
Brainerd didn’t have a turnover and was penalized for just 30 yards.
“We cleaned some things up, we did them better against Sauk Rapids,” Stolski said. “I think physically we might have worn them down a little bit so our backs had a chance to make some good gains after they got into the second level.
“One of the things we did do that I thought was noteworthy was we made a nice drive to end the first half and scored with 11 seconds to go. Historically, that’s been a thing we’ve been able to do. That was one of many good things I thought we did.”
Hennen realizes the Bluejackets are underdogs Tuesday but believes they can compete with anyone.
“I really do,” he said. “I hope we can come up there and play toe to toe with Brainerd. They’re a great team. They’ve been at the top of the section (three of the last four years). They’ve been pretty tough.”
This will be the first meeting between the schools since the 2009 section playoffs.
“I don’t think any of us have to be reminded of the Cambridge legacy,” Stolski said. “Cambridge has won more high school football games in history than any other school.”