GRAND RAPIDS — With fellow running back Logan Davis out with an injury, Conor Gessell was in line to be the workhorse for the Brainerd Warriors Friday night.
The 170-pound junior responded in a huge way against the Grand Rapids Thunderhawks as he rushed 36 times for 224 yards and two touchdowns in Brainerd’s 27-9 win.
“I teased him earlier in the week that in 1976 Tony Veith carried the ball 37 times,” Warriors coach Ron Stolski said. “I said ‘We might give you that many’ because we had lost our other running back.
“We wanted to be in a one-back (formation), and he’s the one with experience. (Davis) is a very good back as well. We needed to be in that formation, so (Gessell) was the guy.”
Gessell said the Warriors decided to go with basic formations with Davis out.
“We ran a lot of spread this week,” he said. “We did a lot of deuce and fan. That was basically our offense.”
Gessell’s legs helped Brainerd control the ball in the second half, running 36 plays from scrimmage to the Thunderhawks’ 13. The Warriors’ defense took over from there, allowing just 205 total yards while Brainerd racked up 337.
“The first half I think we had (four) possessions,” Stolski said. “The second half we did control the ball. We wanted to open it up but things happened. We missed a couple receivers, we did this or that. We decided (the running game) is where to keep it.”
The Warriors’ defense forced three turnovers, with Chris Bowman and Sam Kelash recovering fumbles and Grant Reuer picking off a pass.
“We’ve played pretty sound defense all season,” Stolski said. “We played hard, and Grand Rapids always plays hard. It’s a pleasing victory.”
Searching for its first win, Rapids appeared to take a step in that direction as it took the opening kickoff and marched 79 yards in 16 plays for a score. Quarterback Jackson Gessell hit Wiberg with a 28-yard TD pass on a drive that consumed 7:38.
Conor Gessell won the battle of the Gessell cousins as Jackson Gessell was limited to 29 yards rushing and 48 passing.
“I talked to him a little bit during the game,” Conor Gessell. “I was hoping maybe I would get a ‘Pick 6’ off him but it was nice. We’ve played baseball and other sports together.”
The Warriors went in front 7-6 as Gessell ran 4 yards for a score on Brainerd’s first possession. He carried four times for 39 yards in the series.
Reuer intercepted on the next Thunderhawks possession but Brainerd was eventually forced to punt. Rapids went on another long drive that ended with Brady Thomsen’s 32-yard field goal with 5:05 left until halftime.
Reuer put the Warriors in prime position to score before the half when he darted 55 yards with the ensuing kickoff to the Rapids’ 35. But Brainerd fumbled at the 3 and the Thunderhawks recovered.
Brainerd’s defense, however, gave its offense another shot before halftime as Chris Bowman recovered a fumble on the next Thunderhawks possession at the Rapids’ 13. Quarterback Luke Boran then found Cole Smith for a 10-yard TD pass 66 seconds before the half and a 13-9 lead.
Conor Gessell’s 2-yard run with 2:22 left in the third put Brainerd up 20-9. He rushed six times for 31 yards in the possession.
Boran’s 1-yard plunge with 3:38 remaining was the game’s final score.
“We’ll take this,” Stolski said. “I think Grand Rapids wore down a little bit and we got a little opportunistic.”
The win, Brainerd’s fifth of the season, sends it into Wednesday’s regular-season finale at Alexandria with a head of steam.
“We had to get the momentum back,” Conor Gessell said. “When you take a loss at homecoming (31-20 to St. Michael-Albertville) for the first time in 16 years, or whatever it was, it’s kind of depressing. We’ve just got to get momentum back to get ready for sections (Oct. 26).”
Brainerd 7 6 7 7 — 27
Grand Rapids 6 3 0 0 — 9
GR-Austin Wiberg 28 pass from Jackson Gessell (kick fails) 4:22
Brd-Conor Gessell 4 run (Logan McElfresh kick) 1:32
GR-Brady Thomsen 32 FG, 5:05
Brd-Cole Smith 10 pass from Luke Boran (pass fails) 1:06
Brd-Conor Gessell 2 run (L. McElfresh kick) 2:22
Brd-Boran 1 run (McElfresh kick) 3:58
Rushes-yards: Brd 51-277, GR 40-157
Pass comp-att-int-yds: Brd 7-13-1-60, GR 4-17-1-48
Total offense: Brd 337, GR 205
Fumbles-lost: Brd 3-1, GR 5-2
Rushing: Brd-Luke Boran 11-63, Conor Gessell 36-224, Mason Severson 1-(-1),
Logan McElfresh 1-1; GR-Jackson Gessell 2-29, Austin Wiberg 4-34, Jamison
Passing: Brd-Boran 7-12-60, L. McElfresh 0-1-0; GR-Jackson Gessell 4-17-48
Receiving: Brd-Isaiah Smith 1-5, Cole Smith 3-31, Conor Gessell 1-5, Grant
Reuer 2-19; GR-Stephen McGee Jr. 2-15, Austin Wiberg 2-33
MIKE BIALKA, sports editor, may be reached at 855-5861. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bertsballpark.