Defense was projected as the strength of this year's Brainerd Warriors football team and that has proven true.
Thus far Brainerd has limited the opposition to 16.5 points and 279.7 yards per game.
The Brainerd Warriors celebrated at St. Cloud State University last week after defeating Centennial 34-28 in overtime in the Class 5A state quarterfinals. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls » Purchase reprints of this photo.
But the offense, which had to replace everyone, except wide receiver Kyle Crocker and tight end Cole Stegora, has come on at the most opportune time.
In three postseason games the Warriors have averaged 35 points and 337.3 yards a game. The offense's arrival has helped Brainerd into the semifinals of the Class 5A state tournament where it will play fourth-ranked Cretin-Derham Hall Friday night at the Metrodome.
Warriors vs. Cretin-Derham Hall
What: Class 5A state semifinals
When: 8:15 p.m. Friday
Season records: Brd 8-3, C-DH 10-1
The series: Tied 1-1. C-DH won 56-14 in the 2007 state semifinals.
"We started the season with a kid (Kurt Fahlen) who had never played center before," Warriors coach Ron Stolski said. "Then we had a kid who hadn't (taken many) varsity snaps at quarterback (Reid Mimmack). We had an offensive line with one player (Stegora) that had any time at all. Fahlen and (Mitch) Weideman played a little but very little.
"Then you take a defense where we lost everybody off the front, the secondary is new, other than (Tate) Rusk and Crocker, and we put both of them at different positions, and we (graduated) our punter (Scott Ramey).
"We're a pretty darn good football team. We beat a good team the other night. Centennial was 10-1. They beat Blaine twice. Blaine was ranked third the last time they beat them."
Stegora, Fahlen, Weideman and company have proceeded to help Brainerd average 28.9 points and 302 yards for a season. They have protected Mimmack, enabling him to pass for 1,251 yards, and given Crocker time to get open and make 34 catches for 656 yards and five scores.
The running game has blossomed in the playoffs. In the last three games Jordan Hayes has rushed for 345 of his 725 yards and for four of his five TDs. Carsten Nelson has gained 246 of his 545 yards in the postseason and has scored half of his six TDs in that span.
Crocker is perilous on special teams. He has taken four punts back for TDs and averages 29.9 yards a return. He has averaged 20.6 yards per kickoff return.
"We belong in the final four," Stolski said. "Our kids have worked, they've been coachable, they believe. It's all on them. This is a great accomplishment for these kids."
The Warriors carry an 8-3 record into the contest.
"The important thing is the growth of the team, the improvement the team has displayed," Stolski said. "The improvement not only comes from more practices and more games. In two months you can see a visible change in the players' understanding of the Warrior Way and what it takes. You can talk about it early, that this is what you have inherited, but until you actually start to experience it do you begin to embrace it.
"It isn't necessarily the wins, but embracing and engaging in what we're trying to be about, the bigger picture. It simply helps you play better. It's been just a joy to watch that process happen.
"I can't help but be pleased. I'm more pleased with the way we've played, with so much fire, enthusiasm and confidence."
Brainerd will need all of that Friday. It's unranked and underdogs. But the Warriors upset the Raiders 12-10 in the 1990 state quarterfinals so anything is possible.
"You don't change what you've been doing but you've got to tweak some things," Stolski said. "This will be the best team we've seen, that's kind of the way it's been the last two or three weeks. This is a good (C-DH) team, a team that's used to winning, a team that has all the comforts of home. I don't blame them for those advantages, they just happen to have them. There is a lot for us to overcome, but when the ball is kicked it's still a football game.
"We'll have to play solid football like we have been, not turn the ball over. We'll use some stuff we've been practicing for a long time, but your game can't change. You've got to do what you do. All we ever ask of our kids is play as hard as you can, leave it out there, and the rest takes care of itself."
MIKE BIALKA may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 855-5861.
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