For two and a half quarters the Brainerd Warriors went toe-to-toe in scoreless combat with the Blaine Bengals, one of the metro area’s football heavyweights.
Then the fifth-seeded Bengals shifted into another gear, scoring three times in the final 18 minutes, including twice in 65 seconds, as they blanked the No. 4 Brainerd Warriors 21-0 in the quarterfinals of the Section 5, Class 6A playoffs Friday night at Adamson Field.
Blaine quarterback Alex Copa and a ball-control rushing attack inflicted most of the damage. He turned on the jets in the second half to rush for 173 of his 228 yards, and scored two touchdowns.
Copa was largely responsible for Blaine maintaining a 397-234 edge in total yards.
“His key is making sure he’s running the ball,” Bengals coach Tom Develice said. “Dropping back to pass isn’t necessarily his strong suit. He’s got quick legs so we’ll use him.”
The dagger was inserted by Naji El-Araby when he bolted 37 yards for a score with 7:01 remaining.
Brainerd ventured into the red zone twice in the first half but a fumble and bounced snap botched both threats. The Warriors’ defense forced four turnovers, with T.J. Graumann, Cole Smith and Grant Reuer intercepting passes, and Winston Fenske recovered a fumble, but the offense was unable to capitalize.
“The score is not indicative of the game, I don’t think anyway,” Warriors coach Ron Stolski said. “They’re a good team. Not a lot of people have scored on them. We had so many missed opportunities, but we played very hard.
“It’s been a good season. I’m really proud of the senior leadership and the senior kids. The future is bright for us.
“We would have really liked to get this game. I thought we had a good game plan both ways.”
A stifling defense complemented Blaine’s offense. The Bengals limited Brainerd to 88 yards in the second half. The Warriors ran only 27 plays from scrimmage in the second half to Blaine’s 45.
“Defense has been the strength of our team all season long so as our defense goes we go,” Develice said. “If they keep playing tough, we’ll hang in every single ballgame.”
After the teams traded third-quarter possessions, Blaine embarked on an 84 yard, 8-play scoring drive, capped by Copa’s 16-yard TD run.
Three possessions later, Copa finished off a 90-yard, 12-play series with a 1-yard plunge into the end zone but his run for two failed with 8:06 left.
Following a Brainerd three and out, El-Araby took an inside handoff from Copa and was off to the races for the final score with 7:10 left.
In the first half, after each team had two possessions, Brainerd appeared that it would score first. The Warriors ran 11 plays and moved 62 yards to the Blaine 1 but fumbled on third and goal and the Bengals recovered.
In the final minute of the first half, Brainerd threatened for the final time. The Warriors marched to the Blaine 15 but were stopped on third down. Logan McElfresh came in to attempt a 33-yard field goal but the snap bounced, his low kick was blocked and Blaine regained possession.
Lost in the defeat was the accomplishment of Warriors running back Conor Gessell. The junior gained 74 yards on 18 contested carries to finish the season with 1,033 yards.
The Warriors, playing for the first time with the state’s largest 32 schools, finished 6-3 overall and won a share of their third straight Central Lakes Conference title.
“It was another good season by our kids,” Stolski said. “We’ll take the conference title and now our kids will move on to other things.
“I’m real proud of the team, as we always are. I’ve never had a Warrior team yet that we haven’t been proud of.”
Blaine 0 0 7 14 — 21
Brainerd 0 0 0 0 — 0
Blaine-Alex Copa 16 run (Zach Wright kick) 6:42
Blaine-Copa 1 run (run fails) 8:06
Blaine-Naji El-Araby 37 run (Copa run) 7:01
Rushes-yards: Brd 42-172, Blaine 59-340
Pass comp-att-int-yds: Brd 6-18-0-62, Blaine 5-13-3-57
Total offense: Brd 234, Blaine 397
Fumbles-lost: Brd 2-2, Blaine 2-1
Rushing: Brd-Luke Boran 12-59, Conor Gessell 18-74, Logan Davis 10-28, Cole Smith 1-26; Blaine-Alex Copa 34-228, Kunle Ayinde 13-74, Naji El-Araby 4-30
Passing: Brd-Boran 6-18-62; Blaine-Copa 5-13-57
Receiving: Brd-Isaiah Smith1-10, Grant Reuer 1-39, Gessell 2-3, Davis 1-4, Logan McElfresh 1-6; Blaine-Tyler Drewlo 2-6, Naji El-Araby 1-9, Connor Spurbeck 1-27, Ayinde 1-15.
MIKE BIALKA, sports editor, may be reached at 855-5861. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bertsballpark.