Former long-time Brainerd Warriors assistant coach Mark Embretson had many sayings in his career.
One was “Never give up, never give in.”
This year’s edition of the Brainerd Warriors is the epitome of Embretson’s slogan. They have been behind in three of their first four games, but have emerged with three victories.
Friday night at gusty, rainy Adamson Field, never surrendered, rallying from 14-0 and 17-12 deficits, scoring 28 points in the fourth quarter and posting a 40-23 win over the Bemidji Lumberjacks.
Warriors head coach Ron Stolski shared Embretson’s saying with the team at halftime and they responded with an explosive second half. Limited to two first downs and 42 total yards in the opening half, Brainerd erupted for 351 yards in the second half while limiting the Lumberjacks to 166 yards, a touchdown and a field goal.
“We’re really a fourth-quarter team,” Warriors running back Conor Gessell said. “We get faster and stronger as the games goes on. The coaches always stress that to us. They always get on us at halftime to get going, get our feet going. You’ve got to give credit to the coaches for pushing us all week.”
Entering the fourth quarter trailing 20-17 score, Gessell caught a 5-yard scoring pass from quarterback Luke Boran. Gessell also caught the 2-point conversion pass from Boran and the Warriors led for the first time, 20-17.
Two plays later, Warriors defensive back Grant Reuer intercepted his fourth pass of the season. Boran finished off a 57-yard drive with an 11-yard TD run and the Warriors suddenly led by 10.
The Lumberjacks retaliated on the next series with a 7-yard TD run by quarterback James Hendricks but the extra point was blocked by Warrior linebacker Slade Simpson and Brainerd led 27-23 with 5:21 remaining.
Two plays later, Gessell broke away for a 79-yard TD scamper along the far sideline, breaking a tackle at about the 25 before darting in for a 34-23 lead.
“I thought he was going to catch me,” Gessell said. “I thought about cutting back inside. I think on that long pass he was the same guy (that got beat) so I just trusted my speed.”
Three plays later, Simpson recovered a fumble and Logan Davis finished off the Lumberjacks with a 20-yard TD run with 2:38 left.
“Sure I get worried,” Stolski said of falling behind. “You’ve got to have some poise and the kids really had it. We made a couple of adjustments, not a lot, but we made some at halftime.
“You’ve got to think about this. The two scores Bemidji got (in the first half) were off of turnovers. Bemidji is a good club. They had us off-balance. I thought we had a nice balance of running and throwing. I’m really proud of the second half by our kids.”
Gessell had a big game, rushing 16 times for 165 yards and three scores. He praised offensive tackles Alex DeRosier and Alex Evanson, guards Jon Asprey and Zach Shepersky, center Billy Desrocher and tight end Logan McElfresh for paving the way.
“The first half they weren’t really getting holes,” Gessell said. “The second half was great. They were moving their feet, getting their guys out of the way.”
Boran had another consistent effort, running for 63 yards and passing for 123, and the Warrior defense forced two turnovers.
“Our defense really played well,” Stolski said. “The first half we were running by some things, our stunts were running by. We’re improving. The kids are getting better all the time.”
Bemidji threatened to blow out the Warriors, scoring twice in the first 6:20.
On the game’s first possession, the Lumberjacks punted, Brainerd muffed the punt and Bemidji recovered at the Warriors’ 19. Four plays later, Bemidji’s Tanner Boes, who finished with 122 yards rushing, scored on a 2-yard burst.
To end the next possession, the Warriors ran a fake punt from their own 25 but McElfresh’s pass was incomplete on fourth down. Boes scored two plays later on a 20-yard dash.
Brainerd didn’t score until 9:03 of the second quarter. A 12-yard TD pass from Boran to a leaping Cole Smith in the end zone was made possible when the knee of Bemidji’s punter inadvertently touched the turf on fourth down, giving Brainerd the ball at the Lumberjacks’ 18.
On the first play of Brainerd’s second possession in the second half, Gessell curled out of the backfield and caught a 53-yard TD pass from Boran, pulling Brainerd within 14-12.
“It was meant to be for Logan Davis, but he had an equipment problem so I was out there,” Gessell said. “They were pursuing to the opposite side every single time, so we just caught their outside linebacker pursuing too hard.”
Bemidji 14 0 3 6 — 23
Brainerd 0 6 6 28 — 40
Bem-Tanner Boes 2 run (William Annette kick) 7:24
Bem-Boes 20 run (Annette kick) 5:40
Brd-Cole Smith 12 pass from Luke Boran (kick fails) 9:03
Brd-Conor Gessell 53 pass from Boran (pass fails)
Bem-Annette 31 FG, 5:32
Brd-Gessell 5 run (Gessell pass from Boran) 11:01
Brd-Boran 11 run (Logan McElfresh kick) 8:27
Bem-James Hendricks 7 run (kick fails) 5:21
Brd-Gessell 79 run (McElfresh kick) 4:30
Brd-Logan Davis 20 run (run fails) 2:38
Rushes-yards: Bem 41-200, Brd 41-270
Pass comp-att-int-yds: Bem 8-19-1-100, Brd 5-11-0-123
Total offense: Bem 300, Brd 393
Fumbles-lost: Bem 2-1, Brd 1-0
Rushing: Brd-Boran 13-63, Gessell 16-165, Davis 11-41, Matt Ramerth 1-1; Bem-Hendricks 12-53, Boes 18-122, Brady Schmidt 6-19
Passing: Brd-Boran 5-11-123, McElfresh 0-1-0; Bem-Hendricks 8-19-100
Receiving: Brd-Cole Smith 1-12, Isaiah Smith 1-43, Davis 1-(-1), Gessell 2-69; Bem-Jaylen Ingalls 3-31, Alex Fenson 2-11, Connor McNallan 1-31, Schmidt 3-27
Mike Bialka, sports editor, may be reached at 855-5861. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bertsballpark.