Brainerd Warriors football has established itself as possibly the state’s most respected outstate program through the years, knocking off pillars like Cretin-Derham Hall, Wayzata, Centennial and Eden Prairie in the big-school state playoffs.
Brainerd continues to be in the big school class, but the playoff format has undergone a significant change. This season, the big school class is now Class 6A and the Warriors will be the only outstate team among Minnesota’s 32 largest schools.
The Warriors, for years members of Section 8, Class 5A, have been assigned to Section 5 of Class 6A, with Blaine, Centennial, Champlin Park, Coon Rapids, Maple Grove, Anoka and Osseo.
Basically, the big school class now means Brainerd will play a metro team in the section quarterfinals instead of in the state quarterfinals.
“We’ve fared well in state tournament play, we’ve played at the (Metrodome) three times in five years,” Warriors coach Ron Stolski said.
“I think the road (to state) will be tougher now because the section we were placed in will contain all schools literally larger than us,” Stolski added. “But we can’t worry about that because it’s settled.
“The real concern I have is, whether or not because of the (Quality Results Formula), we will ever be able to host (a playoff game). That would be unfortunate because we have a great tradition. And, we’re a place where opponents like to come because our venue is a great venue.
“We are proud to be the only outstate team in the ‘32’ and, when the time comes, we will try to represent the outstate well and to the best of our ability.”
Coming off its second straight Central Lakes Conference championship, and its 10th trip to the section finals in 17 years, this year’s Warrior team returns four full-time starters on offense and two on defense. They also return two part-time starters on offense and on defense.
Running backs Logan Davis and Conor Gessell and offensive linemen Billy Desrocher and Jon Asprey started in 2011. Tight end Alex Evanson and lineman Zach Shepersky were part-time starters.
On defense, defensive backs Cole Smith and Grant Reuer were full-time starters last season. Lineman Jace Engelmann and linebacker Slade Simpson were part-time starters.
“We do have some experience in the secondary with two kids who are real experienced players, that’s why they’re going to see some time offensively too,” Stolski said. “Otherwise, we’re untested, our front especially. We’re going to be undersized, with our front and our linebackers.
“I really like the fact we’ve got a good number of multisport athletes, kids who play other games as well as this one. Our history has been when we have kids who have competed in other sports and activities, that’s very important. Looking at a list of our kids, there are an awful lot of them that have been in a lot of different games.
“We have the potential to be explosive. If you look at some of the speed that we may be able to get on the field, it’s certainly a little bit better than average. When you have that, you’ve got a chance to perhaps do some things offensively.
“But you need to stay healthy to develop. That’s true of us, just as it’s true of the Gophers, the Vikings, or anybody else.”
➤Quarterback: Senior captain Luke Boran will be backed up by juniors Thomas Stoxen and Logan McElfresh. In 2011, Boran carried the ball 11 times for 90 yards and attempted one pass.
“Luke has had a nice two weeks,” Stolski said. “He has great leadership qualities. He’s a 3-sport athlete who has kind of waited his turn as a senior. I think he’s going to have a nice year.
“Thomas is another 3-sport athlete. He’s quick. He doesn’t quite have the arm that Luke has but, he will add a lot to our option offense. He’s a defensive back as well and he’s vying for a starting position there.”
➤Running back: Davis is the leading returning rusher with 98 attempts for 524 yards and three scores. Gessell added 275 yards on 54 carries and four TDs.
“They’re junior kids who got good experience,” Stolski said. “Both are 3-sport athletes, both have gotten stronger. The experience of a year ago, you can’t beat that. There’s nothing like game experience.”
Stolski said juniors Matt Ramerth, Mason Severson, Matt Sucik and Cole DeRosier are vying for playing time.
➤Offensive line: Desrocher returns at center, Asprey and Shepersky at guard and Evanson at tight end/tackle.
“We’ve got some good inside experience with Desrocher, who played most of last year,” Stolski said. “Asprey had a great offseason. He dedicated himself to getting bigger and stronger. Shepersky played quite a bit. Evanson’s natural position is tight end, but he’s athletic enough that we will look at him at a number of offensive line positions.”
Others in the mix are Alex Mimmack, Alex DeRosier, James Weiss, Andy Meierhofer, Zach Thomas and Andrew Seglem.
➤Wide receiver: Candidates include Cole Smith, Reuer, Isaiah Smith, Geoff Sheflo, Quinn McElfresh, Jake Toft and Blake Erickson.
➤Defensive line: Engelmann recorded 42 tackles last season with four sacks and a forced fumble.
“The most experienced, and probably the leader of the defensive line, is Engelmann,” Stolski said.
Others in line for playing time include Chris Bowman, Mimmack, Chris Laber, Eric Uphoff, Sam Adams, Tyler Fitch, Austin Mau, Austin Kubesh, Lee Birchem and Steve Rushmeyer.
➤Linebackers: Simpson made 72 tackles with two pass breakups and two interceptions. Senior captain Sam Kelash added 31 tackles.
Others in the group include Jake Donnay, Winston Fenske, Logan McElfresh, Taylor Scheidenberger, T.J. Graumann, Austin Gapinski, Ben Brodmarkle, Logan Jones and Dillon Solid.
➤Defensive backs: Cole Smith led the team in interceptions (5) and was the fifth-leading tackler with 80. He added eight pass breakups and a fumble recovery for a TD.
Reuer was fourth in tackles (103), forced two fumbles and had two pass breakups.
Others in the running are Trevor Maier, Stoxen, Beau Janousek and Nick Schwen.
➤Punters: Logan McElfresh, Fenske.
➤Kicker: Logan McElfresh.
➤Long snap: Janousek, Donnay.