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High School Football: Warriors hope to take down another metro foe

During Ron Stolski's tenure as head coach, the Brainerd Warriors have knocked off some of the top metro programs like Cretin-Derham Hall, Wayzata, Centennial and Eden Prairie.

St. Louis Park, who the Warriors play in the Class 5A state quarterfinals at 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11, at Husky Stadium in St. Cloud, hasn't been a factor in metro football. This fall the Orioles posted their first winning season since 1972.

Robbinsdale Cooper was the overwhelming favorite to emerge as the Section 5-5A champion. Cooper went unbeaten in the regular season and trounced Spring Lake Park 23-0 in the section semifinals. But Cooper couldn't get past the Orioles as it was stunned 13-12 in the section final by St. Louis Park.

Orioles head coach Ben Wolfe indicated his team will not overlook the outstate Warriors.

"We think we're playing a really good team come Saturday," he said. "We've had kind of an underdog mentality anyway with how our season has gone, the teams we've had to play.

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Brainerd vs. St. Louis Park

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"I don't think the outstate/instate factor is big for us. This is uncharted territory for us. We try to focus on playing our best game and the team in front of us, game-planning for them. I don't think we're too worried about who it is or where they're from. They're just another team in our way and we'll do our best to take care of it."

The Orioles (7-3) were 2-3 before they rattled off five straight victories on their way to their first state tournament. A 16-14 win over Orono Oct. 6 started their turnaround.

"Looking at the three teams we lost to, Cooper (40-0), Benilde (48-20) and Holy Angels (30-0), at this point in the season they have three combined losses," Wolfe said. "Those are some pretty good teams that we played. We've played a pretty tough schedule.

"I can't say there was a turning point in the season. We've challenged ourselves to get better each week. Somewhere along the sixth game of the year, around the Orono game, we got a couple breaks. We found ourselves in some close games and we were able to pull through that. Those games could have gone either way. It worked out well and here we are.

"It's been a good ride. The kids have showed a ton of resiliency. I think all of those things factored into the last game. We were able to put ourselves in a position to win a close game when we needed to."

Senior quarterback Johnny Sorensen is the Orioles' go-to player. Through the regular season, Sorensen completed 100 of 192 passes (52 percent) for 1,473 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also was the Orioles' leading rusher with 292 yards and five TDs.

"He makes really good decisions," Wolfe said. "He's a great kid—a three-sport athlete. He also plays hockey and baseball. He's a first-year quarterback. He played some receiver for us last year. He does a little bit of everything for us."

Sorensen's top receivers are Akili Farris with 31 catches for 583 yards and five scores and Semaj Mitchell with 28 grabs for 427 yards and four TDs.

Wolfe said the Orioles' leading defenders have been senior strong safety Karon Adams and linebackers Peyton Morrison (senior) and Jariel Lopez-Barrera (junior). Lopez-Barrera registered 89 total tackles, Adams 80 and Morrison 48.

About the only similarities between the Warriors and Orioles are the number of close games each team has won. In six of their eight victories, ninth-ranked Brainerd had to rally to win. In six of their seven wins, the Orioles beat their opponents by a combined 25 points.

"The thing about them that we respect that's impressive is the number of close games they've won, not unlike us," Stolski said. "They've been a real resilient bunch."

While the Orioles rely on Sorensen and the pass, Brainerd relies on the run and running back Charlie Geraets. The senior workhorse is averaging 28.8 carries per game on his way to 1,681 yards (5.8 per attempt) and 20 TDs. Max Zimmerman is next in rushing with 298 yards and four scores.

"He's a tough kid," Wolfe said of Geraets. "He runs hard. He's explosive. He has a good group of guys blocking for him in front. He definitely will be a challenge for us."

Brainerd is making its 10th state tournament appearance, its first since 2013 when it was the 5A runner-up.

"(This game is) not unlike homecoming in a way in that there's a lot of excitement surrounding another trip to the state tournament," Stolski said. "We need to focus on our task and that is to play very well. Our preparation, I think, has been good despite how chilly it's been. The kids have been amenable to getting our game plan in."

Brainerd's defensive leaders include linebackers Luke Johnson and Taylor Ludwig with 194 and 131 tackles, respectively. Defensive back Brady Anderson has 125 tackles and leads the team with eight interceptions. Zimmerman, who's also a linebacker, and fellow linebacker Braden Kramer have added 95 and 93 tackles, respectively.

This will be the Warriors' fourth Saturday game this season—two were in the regular season. Stolski has always liked an extra day of preparation.

"You have to make sure you make good use of that extra day," he said. "Any coach will tell you you worry sometimes about leaving your game on the practice field.

"This is a good, tough, bunch of kids who have responded to challenges all year. I have every belief that they will respond to this one."

According to the National Weather Service, Saturday's forecast for St. Cloud is a high of 39 with a low of 23.

"That's shirt-sleeve weather this season," Stolski said.