Conor Gessell is not only a running back and the leading rusher and top scorer for the Brainerd Warriors. He’s also a capable receiver, occasionally plays defense and leads the team in kickoff returns.
In the last two games, Gessell has blossomed in all of his roles, scoring 20 points in each game.
Against Bemidji, he rushed 16 times for 165 yards and two TDs and caught two passes for 69 and a score. At St. Cloud Apollo, he ran 19 times for 120 yards and three TDs and caught a 2-point conversion pass.
Running backs credit the guys up front for their success and Gessell is no exception. He credits tight ends Logan McElfresh and Alex Mimmack, and linemen Alex Evanson, Zach Shepersky, Billy Desrocher, Jon Asprey and Alex DeRosier for paving the way for his success.
“The offensive line, they’ve really improved the last two weeks a lot,” Gessell said. And, (quarterback) Luke Boran is keeping the attention off both me and (running back) Logan Davis. They’re keying on (Boran) a lot. That leaves us open more, then our wide receivers are improving their blocking.”
For the season, Gessell leads the Warriors with 76 rushing attempts for 492 yards and five TDs.
“He sees the field very well,” Warriors head coach Ron Stolski said. “He’s been kind of fortunate in that he’s gotten the ball near the goal line. He kind of has a nose for the end zone.
“He sees things so well. He runs low and hard and has the ability to break a tackle. Down there it isn’t that we just go to him because our other backs are running awfully hard too. It’s just that he’s had those opportunities and has made the most of them.
“I think the big thing is how hard he works. He just explodes. He has things to work on yet but he certainly has a toughness about him that you don’t teach.”
Gessell also has made the most of his kick return opportunities. He has returned 14 kicks for 337 yards and took one to the house against Rocori, a return that he credited McElfresh for helping set up.
“Basically, I think Logan made a good block, and I just followed him up the sideline,” Gessell said. “I saw about three guys coming right down the line and I cut back up. They were pursuing pretty hard. There was no one up the middle so I just went right back up there.”
He also has caught two passes, both against Bemidji, for 69 yards, including a 53-yard score from Boran.
“We work on it a lot in practice,” Gessell said of his receiving. “We usually bring it out when they seem to be putting a lot of guys in the box.”
Last, but not least, is Gessell’s role on defense. Brainerd brings him in in one of its defensive packages.
“They like to use me when it’s a passing down, when they bring out more of nickle look,” he said. “They have me usually play defense against wide receivers, just like another cornerback.”
Stolski said Gessell doesn’t get many reps on defense but excels when given the opportunity.
“He plays that without not a lot of training,” Stolski said. “He’s just naturally a good football player. He gets in maybe a situation where we think the ball’s going in the air. We use him as a fifth defensive back.”
Gessell started part-time as a sophomore, rushing for 275 yards. That experience helped him become a starter from the get-go this fall.
“I didn’t have to learn any new plays,” Gessell said. “I knew the whole playbook pretty good, what to expect in games, and how hard I should be playing.”
His skills have helped Brainerd (4-1) win four straight games since a season-opening loss to Rocori.
“So far, other than the first half of the first game, I think we’ve played pretty well,” Gessell said.
Stolski said Gessell epitomizes the Warriors’ stable of backs, which includes Boran, Davis and reserves Steve Ramerth, Mason Severson and Matt Sucik.
“We try to teach them to run with their eyes and run hard,” Stolski said. “The last few games, he’s an example of a back who runs hard, but he’s got plenty of help with Davis and Boran.”
Other notable efforts:
■ Luke Boran, football, ran for 137 yards and a score against Apollo.
■ Maddie Waters and Ally Smith, soccer, each scored two goals against Moorhead.
■ Fallon Ryan, swimming, won two individual events and was on two winning relays against Melrose.