WILLMAR — For three quarters the Brainerd Warriors stonewalled the Willmar Cardinals.
After seizing a 21-point lead, shutting Willmar out and limiting the Cardinals to 126 yards in the first three quarters, Brainerd watched Willmar battle back in the fourth before the Warriors emerged with a 21-14 Central Lakes Conference win Friday night.
Trailing 21-0 early in the fourth, Willmar stormed through the line to block a Logan McElfresh punt. The Cardinals recovered at the Brainerd 23. Four plays later, Zech Streed ran one yard for a TD, Patrick Courtney’s kick was good and it was 21-7.
Following a Brainerd three and out, a questionable pass interference call against the Warriors spurred Willmar. Five plays later Willmar quarterback Alex Grove hit brother Austin Grove for an 8-yard score. Courtney’s kick tightened it to 21-14. On third and 16, Alex Grove hit running back Michael Heitzman for a 32-yard screen pass to the Brainerd 5.
But the Warriors did a tremendous job preserving their second win of the season and their first road test. Starting from their 25, Brainerd gained 50 yards and made three first downs on the game’s final possession. Quarterback Luke Boran, who finished with 112 yards rushing, carried three times for 52 yards to keep the drive alive.
“We talked to the kids about making a drive,” Warriors coach Ron Stolski said. “It was a great case of a quarterback taking over a game. Rarely do we say that but Luke Boran — on the ground yet — that showed some moxie on our team. We needed to get a first down. I don’t know if reeling is the word but it sort of is. (Willmar was) all fired up.”
Willmar’s defense was fired up in the second half, restricting Brainerd to just 79 total yards and four first downs and sacked Boran twice. The only time the Warriors got inside the Willmar 25 was on the game’s final drive.
“I was real pleased with the effort of our kids,” Stolski said. “We weren’t as sharp in the second half but a lot of that credit goes to Willmar. Willmar’s a good team. They rose up.”
The Warriors, who had trailed at halftime in each of their first two games, got off the bus ready. On the second play from scrimmage, Brainerd defensive back Grant Reuer intercepted Alex Grove’s pass and returned it to the Warriors’ 31.
The Warriors needed just five plays to take a 7-0 lead. Boran capped the drive with a 47-yard scoring run, followed by the first of three McElfresh kicks.
Logan Davis’ 4-yard run on the first possession of the second quarter put Brainerd up 14-0 with 9:13 left until halftime.
Conor Gessell finished Brainerd’s next possession with a 4-yard TD run just over two minutes before halftime. The big play in the series was a 37-yard pass from Boran to Logan Davis on second and 13.
Willmar managed just 65 total yards and four first downs in the first half. The Cardinals crossed midfield for one play — before Reuer’s pick. “Our defense was very good,” Stolski said. “That’s a tough offense. It was a great defensive game plan by our guys. Other than some errors — when you have errors you have problems — it was a big win on the road.”
The win was Brainerd’s 10th straight against Willmar dating back to 2001.
“This is a good win,” Stolski said. “It was (Willmar’s) senior night, at their place, long travel, we got a big effort from our kids.
“It was a team victory, like they always are, but special teams, which we feel so strongly about, tonight were not so good.”
Brainerd 7 14 0 0 — 21
Willmar 0 0 0 14 — 14
Brd-Luke Boran 47 run (Logan McElfresh kick) 9:13
Brd-Logan Davis 4 run (McElfresh kick) 9:13
Brd-Conor Gessell 4 run (McElfresh kick) 2:23
W-Zech Streed 1 run (Patrick Courtney kick) 7:30
W-Austin Grove 8 pass from Alex Grove (Courtney kick) 3:50
Rushes-yards: Brd 42-209, W 24-100
Pass comp-att-int-yds: Brd 6-8-0-83, W 12-26-1-106
Total offense: Brd 292, W 206
Rushing: Brd-Luke Boran 16-112, Conor Gessell 21-70, Logan Davis 13-28;
W-Alex Grove 7-26, Michael Heitzman 16-73, Zech Streed 1-1
Passing: Brd-Boran 6-8-83; W-Grove 12-26-106
Receiving: Brd-Cole Smith 1-12, Grant Reuer 2-19, Logan Davis 2-52; W-Austin
Rambow 1-5, Brandon Christenson 4-14, Chris Cunningham 4-16, Heitzman 2-33,
Streed 1-30, Austin Grove 1-8
MIKE BIALKA, sports editor, may be reached at 855-5861. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bertsballpark.