When the chips are down, don’t bet against the Brainerd Warriors.
Trailing 20-17 with 5:17 remaining, Brainerd dug deep and rallied for an emotional 24-20 homecoming victory over the Bemidji Lumberjacks Saturday afternoon in a muddy mess at Adamson Field.
For the third straight week, the unbeaten and third-ranked Warriors administered the first loss to a previously unbeaten opponent. And, for the second straight week, they beat a ranked foe.
The game was decided by a 9-yard TD pass from quarterback Thomas Stoxen to running back Logan Davis, who made a great catch in the back corner of the end zone with 2:33 left. Davis said Brainerd had run the play earlier but it failed.
“We knew we had it down here again, so we tried it,” Davis said. “I came out on a little wheel route, and the play was open. I saw the safety slip in the corner of my eye so I knew I just had to catch the ball and stay in bounds.
“Stoxen put some air under the ball. It was a perfect throw. All I needed to do was just focus on catching the ball. It was right to me.”
The score bookended a 7-play, 66-yard game-winning march that pushed Brainerd’s record to 6-0. A huge play preceding the score was a 46-yard pass on first down from Stoxen to Cole Smith, who made an over-the-shoulder grab.
“We weren’t nervous, it was just excitement, it was fun,” Stoxen said of the game-winning drive. “The line was great on all the passing plays and on every running play, but we had to work for every yard we got.”
Stoxen finished 9 of 14 passing for 187 yards. Clutch catches by Davis, Cole Smith and Logan McElfresh enabled the Warriors to have their best passing game of the season.
“You want your good players to make good plays,” Warriors coach Ron Stolski said. “The catch and throw by Tommy, Cole Smith makes the catch, and Logan Davis made a heck of a catch, it was resiliency. That’s part of our tradition and the kids felt it today.”
Following Davis’ game-winner, fourth-ranked Bemidji started its final possession at its 30 but gained only 16 yards. Brainerd linebacker Taylor Streiff preserved the win when he picked off a Hendricks pass in the final 90 seconds.
Brainerd scored on three of its first four possessions. Its first was highlighted by a 79-yard pass from Stoxen to Logan McElfresh, who made a beautiful one-handed grab and outran the defense until being tripped up at the Bemidji 2. Conor Gessell, who finished with 123 yards rushing, ran one yard for the only score of the first quarter.
Early in the second quarter, Brainerd surged ahead 14-0 when Davis ran 2 yards for the TD. Two plays earlier, Gessell’s 26-yard run set up the score.
Bemidji responded on the next possession as quarterback James Hendricks threw a 26-yard scoring pass to Ryan Hirt. Earlier in the possession, Hendricks ran 32 yards for a first down. Jaquon Cogshell blocked the extra point and Brainerd led 14-6.
Logan McElfresh’s 30-yard field goal in the second quarter gave Brainerd a 17-6 edge with 2:05 left until halftime. Gessell cranked out a 46-yard gain during the possession.
But Bemidji was far from finished. The Lumberjacks scored on the next possession on a 22-yard scamper by Hendricks, which preceded Tanner Boes’ 2-point conversion run, and it was 17-14 Brainerd at the half.
Following a scoreless third quarter, Bemidji seized its only lead, embarking on a 15-play, 85-yard possession that was assisted by pass interference on third down against Brainerd. The drive culminated with Boes’ 6-yard TD run with 5:17 left but the extra-point kick was wide, leaving the Lumberjacks with a precarious 3-point lead.
Bemidji 0 14 0 6 — 20
Brainerd 7 10 0 7 — 24
Brd-Conor Gessell 1 run (Logan McElfresh kick) 6:09
Brd-Logan Davis 2 run (Logan McElfresh kick) 8:22
Bem-Ryan Hirt 26 pass from James Hendricks (kick fails) 4:57
Brd-Logan McElfresh 30 FG, 2:05
Bem-Hendricks 22 run (Tanner Boes run) 0:46
Bem-Boes 6 run (kick fails) 5:17
Brd-Davis 9 pass from Stoxen (Logan McElfresh kick) 2:33
First downs: Brd 11, Bem 21
Rushes-yards: Brd 39-148, Bem 46-200
Pass comp-att-int-yds: Brd 9-14-0-187, Bem 8-15-1-119
Total offense: Brd 335, Bem 319
Punts-avg: Brd 3-34.0, Bem 5-28.4
Return yards: Brd 58, Bem 62
Fumbles-lost: Brd 1-0, Bem 1-0
Penalties-yds lost: Brd 5-50, Bem 5-40
Rushing: Brd-Thomas Stoxen 6-5, Conor Gessell 18-123, Logan Davis 11-16, Logan McElfresh 2-6, Team 2-(-2); Bem-James Hendricks 19-103, Tanner Boes 20-95, Wakinyan Moore 5-9
Passing: Brd-Stoxen 9-14-187; Bem-Hendricks 8-15-119
Receiving: Brd-Isaiah Smith 4-39, Cole Smith 1-46, Davis 2-17, Logan McElfresh 2-85; Bem-Ryan Hirt 4-71, Annette 3-38, Moore 1-10
MIKE BIALKA, sports editor, may be reached at 855-5861. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bertsballpark.