When Conor Gessell returned the opening kickoff 86 yards for a score there was little doubt who the victor was going to be.
It was the Brainerd Warriors, who went on to throttle the Grand Rapids Thunderhawks 47-0 in the final game of the regular season Wednesday night and attain a number of milestones in the process.
Brainerd finished the regular season unbeaten for the first time since 2010 and for the fourth time in 12 years. It was just the fifth unbeaten season in program history and gave Brainerd the outright Central Lakes Conference North Division championship.
“We’re really proud of everybody,” senior offensive lineman and captain Alex DeRosier said. “Everyone stepped it up. We put in our work starting in August and we made it through the season. We did what our ultimate goal was so far — to be unbeaten. Hopefully we stay unbeaten until the end of the season. We’ve had a lot of fun.”
In addition, the victory likely locked up the No. 1 seed and a bye in the Section 7-5A playoffs. If the Warriors are No. 1, they will have home-field advantage throughout the section playoffs.
“Being the No. 1 seed is a great feeling,” senior linebacker and captain Winsten Fenske said. “We’ll get home-field advantage and a first-round bye (Oct. 22). That gives us a lot of practice time to get ready for our next game because we’re going to see some good teams in our section.”
Following Gessell’s score, the Warriors tallied on four of their first six possessions and zipped to a 40-0 halftime edge. Logan Davis scored on runs of 17 and 2 yards. Cole Smith returned a punt 56 yards for a TD. Gessell scored on runs of 39 and 20 yards. Matt Ramerth’s 1-yard TD run in the fourth quarter was the final score.
Brainerd quarterback Thomas Stoxen passed for 116 yards in the first half as he completed 7 of 9 attempts. Gessell rushed 11 times for 96 yards, all in the first half. The Warriors gained 258 of their 357 total yards in the first 24 minutes.
Warrior starters did not play in the second half. The last 19 minutes were played with the clock running.
Meanwhile, Brainerd’s defense was virtually impenetrable. It surrendered just 145 total yards and six first downs — only three first downs and 49 yards in the second half.
“The kids played pretty well,” Warriors coach Ron Stolski said. “We had them outmanned a little bit but we played awfully hard. We did a lot of good things in a lot of places. We’re improving, you could see that tonight. I’m happy for the kids.”
Section seedings will be determined Thursday. Brainerd entered Wednesday’s game with the No. 1 Quality Results Formula in Class 5A. QRF will determine how section teams are seeded. The Warriors are also ranked third in 5A by The Associated Press.
DeRosier and Fenske said the unbeaten season and all that has been accomplished have made this an unforgettable experience.
“It’s great,” DeRosier said. “You try to be a leader for it. It’s something that not very many people get to be part of. I believe only five teams in Brainerd history have went undefeated in the regular season. It feels awesome to be part of that, let alone be a senior leader for that. We’re pretty excited about that.”
“I can’t even explain how great this feels to be part of an undefeated team,” Fenske said. “We’ve become such a family. Nothing’s better.”
Grand Rapids 0 0 0 0 — 0
Brainerd 14 26 0 7 — 47
B-Conor Gessell 86 kickoff return (Logan McElfresh kick) 11:47
B-Logan Davis 17 run (Logan McElfresh kick) 8:09
B-Davis 2 run (Logan McElfresh kick) 10:10
B-Cole Smith 56 punt return (Logan McElfresh kick) 4:52
B-Conor Gessell 39 run (kick fails) 3:17
B-Conor Gessell 20 run (kick fails) 0:25
B-Matt Ramerth 1 run (Logan McElfresh kick) 5:40
Rushes-yards: GR 38-100, Brd 37-225
Pass comp-att-int-yds: GR 3-15-0-45, Brd 10-12-0-132
Total offense: GR 145, Brd 357
Rushing: Brd-Thomas Stoxen 3-(-7), Conor Gessell 11-96, Logan Davis 7-50, Logan McElfresh 3-34, Isaiah Smith 1-3, Matt Sucik 6-24, Paul Augustinack 1-(-1), Matt Ramerth 3-21, Evan Brecht 2-2; GR-Eric Soderberg 13-47
Passing: Brd-Stoxen 7-9-116, L. McElfresh 1-1-7, Augustinack 1-1-4, Brecht 1-1-5; GR-Eric Soderberg 3-11-45, Jackson Gessell 0-4-0
Receiving: Brd-Isaiah Smith 2-15, Cole Smith 1-42, Davis 1-17, Quinn McElfresh 2-36, Grant Reuer 1-6, Blake Erickson 1-7, Steven Severson 1-4, Jake Toft 1-5; GR-Jackson Gessell 2-30
MIKE BIALKA, sports editor, may be reached at 855-5861. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bertsballpark.