Friday Night Lights will finally return for the Brainerd Warriors and their fans.
A day after the Minnesota State High School League approved a fall schedule for football, the Warriors had to take a two-week hiatus from activities due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
When the Warriors returned to the practice field Wednesday, Oct. 7, their first scheduled game against Cambridge-Isanti Friday, Oct. 9, was already canceled.
Brainerd will hit the field Saturday, Oct. 17, against St. Cloud Apollo in Week Two action.
“It’s refreshing to be back,” Warriors first-year head coach Jason Freed said. “It’s been a real roller coaster dealing with all this. You get started up and then you get shut down. You get started up again and then you get shut down. My message to the kids when we came back from distance learning was to enjoy being here and embrace the opportunity to be on a field and play football.”
Freed takes over as the head coach after Ron Stolski retired from roam the Brainerd sidelines for 45 years. Freed also has defensive coordinator responsibilities which is a hat he wore the past 10 years.
Freed was the head coach for Houston and led them to a Nine-Man state title in 2008.
“The transition was very seamless,” Freed said. “Me knowing the kids and the kids knowing me. It’s been really exciting and I tell people a lot that the foundation of Warrior football is very, very solid and that’s a credit to coach Stolski and everything he did for Warrior football for 45 years.”
Despite the uncertainty of the 2020 season, one of Freed’s goals was to have a good number of student-athletes play football. There are almost 140 students in grades 9-12 playing Brainerd football this season.
“That’s something I am very proud of doing,” Freed said. “It’s not just me or the coaches, it’s the kids being optimistic about football and keeping their head in the game despite the negativity. It’s a credit to the kids for sticking with it.”
Gamedays will look different with the COVID-19 protocols. Only 250 fans will be allowed in attendance per the guidelines of the Minnesota Department of Health. The buses can only have a certain number of student-athletes on them and during the game they have to be spread out on the sidelines.
“We have to utilize masks,” Freed said. “It’s all these things and we have talked with our kids about being resilient and being able to adjust to change. And if anything we are teaching this generation of kids the lessons of grit and resilience.”
Offensively, the Warriors return starting quarterback junior Nathaniel Staehling who started most of the 2019 season. Senior Isaiah Windorski got playing time at the end of last season due to a Staehling injury Freed thinks his team has two very capable quarterbacks.
“I’ve been super happy with those two young men,” Freed said. “They both have worked extremely hard this offseason and not only their skills on the field, but the mental aspects of what comes with being a quarterback — reading defenses and understanding the nuances of our offense. What’s neat is to see the two of them work together. They are obviously competing against one another, but when it comes down to it they work with each other and are leaders.”
Last year, the Warriors relied heavily on Ben Staehling and Davon Stuckey to carry the ball. With both graduated, senior Caden Schoeppner will likely get the bulk of the carries along with juniors Gabe Wagner and Trevor Jechorek. Nathaniel Staelhing also provides a running threat at the QB spot.
“It starts with quarterbacks,” Freed said. “Both quarterbacks are going to be running threats for us. Nathaniel is a very good runner and you are going to see him be a big part of our running game. Caden Schoeppner will probably be our feature back and then you will see a host of other people. We have a couple other young kids we will grow, too.”
The receiving corps lost a big target in Owen Davis, who caught 23 passes for 522 yards, but Freed thinks this season he has depth at the wide receiver position.
Seniors Jacob Smith and Brandt Patton highlight the receiving corp as well as senior Simon Foss, who had big games late last season for the Warriors.
“Our receiving corps is probably one of the strengths of our team,” Freed said. “We have some kids who are real steady. We don’t have a big, tall target, but they run good routes. I’m really excited about the potential of our offense.”
Defensively, all three of Brainerd’s captains are on that side of the ball.
Linebacker Forrest Gibson finished last season with 116 tackles. Defensive lineman Andrew Thielke anchors the defensive line. Defensive back Harry Carlson leads the secondary.
“That’ll be big,” Freed said. “Especially when we get into games. When we line up Saturday evening, it’ll be nice to have three guys who play on the three levels of defense to lean on.”
Having that type of leadership on the defensive side of the ball is encouraging Freed, as he feels the defense is still a work in progress.
“The defensive side of the ball definitely has the least amount of experience coming back,” Freed said. “Four seniors are coming back who played, so we are going to be a work in progress. We aren’t big, but we have some quickness. We talk a lot about getting 11-men to the ball. That wolfpack mentality is our mantra this year.”
With no two-a-days or scrimmage before the first game it’s been hard for Freed to evaluate his players like he would under normal circumstances.
“We are going to find that we have a host of kids that we just need to find to get on the field,” Freed said. “To see how they react and play the game — how they tackle. We have a variety of kids and a lot of them battling for positions.”
Seniors: Andrew Thielke, Jacob Smith, Harry Carlson, Isaiah Windorski, Simon Foss, Cole Beyer, Aiden Brown, RJ Campbell, Caden Schoeppner, Brandt Patton, Jaiden McClanahan, Jack Lundstrom, Aaron Stark, Forrest Gibson, Chase Bentler, Dante Bernal, Ethan Strong, Maxwell Olson, Aden Crabb, Damian Unzueta, Nolan Reynolds, Cole Larkin, Elijah Rock, Jeremy Duff, Ryan Cook
Juniors: Jed Klang, Matthew Huesmann, Ethan Windorski, Nathaniel Staehling, Aden Extrand, Camden Langerman, Gavin Schwen, Dawson Piepho, Zach Horn, Kouper Seidl, Ethan Derosier, Sam Spieker, Dylan Wgeishofski, Adam Jensen, Trevor Jechorek, Eli Biggs, Noah Rushmeyer, Gabe Wagner, William Hansen, Alex Helmin, Jacob Holm, Brady Toensing, Grant Gardiepy, Riley DeRosier, Jonas Ewald, Cater Springer, Dominik Waytashek, Ben Schneider, Dalton Barrett, Caden Jager, Jacon Borgstrom, Mason Callstrom, Deshawn Brown, Elijah Hanson, Chandelier DeRosier, Colin Fanjoy, Ethan Olson, Mitchell Degen, Andrew Albright, Delon Kosloski
Sophomores: Marcello Getty, Hayden Olson, Sawyer Hennessey, Aiden Sills, Hunter Holtz, Noah Miles, Noah Hines, Reece Isle, Damien Bentho, Logan McKay, Dillon MacLaughlin, Gavyn Bowers, Daric Caughey, Rhyen Buckmaster, Jacon Lindman, Izayah Schultz, Josh Albright, Jesse Rodman, Conner Erickson, Eli Wiskow, Jake Stockinger, Aubrey Rasmussen, Liam Luther, Kolnie Bernu, Reece Meter, Blake Collins, Randy Cook, Logan Triplett, Ray Clemons, Eric Eidenshink, Henry Hopkins, Caleb Lange
Saturday, Oct. 17, at St. Cloud Apollo 6 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 23, hosts Alexandria 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 30, hosts Bemidji 7 p.m.
Friday, Nov. 6, at Moorhead 7 p.m.
Thursday, Nov. 12, hosts Sartell 7 p.m.
Tuesday, Nov. 17, Section 8-5A opening round 7 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 21, Section 8-5A semifinals 2 p.m.
Friday, Nov. 27, Section 8-5A finals 7 p.m.
Head coach: Jason Freed (1st at Brainerd, 5 at Houston).
2019 finish: 2-4 in North Central Red Subdistrict, 3-7 overall
Career record: 32-21 (.604)
Brainerd record: 0-0
Returning starters: Nathaniel Staehling (QB), Brandt Patton (RB), Jacob Smith (WR), Harry Carlson (WR/DB), Andrew Thielke (DL), Chandler DeRosier (OL), Forrest Gibson (LB), Caden Schoppner (RB), Ethan Strong (OL), Aden Crabb (OL), Dominik Waytashek (OL)
2020 captains: Forrest Gibson, Andrew Thielke, Harry Carlson
Assistant coaches: Troy Nelson (OC), Wade Haapajoki (OL), Curtis Brisk (OL/JV), Jace Marcelo (WR/ST), Logan McElfresh (TE/Specialists), John Stumpf (head JV and RB), Aron Anderson (DL), Mark Erickson (DL/JV), Joe Pohlkamp (JV DC/DB), McKinley Anderson (DB), Mitch Feierabend (LB), Mike Zauhar (volunteer/DB/returners), Jonathan LeMieur (volunteer/OL)
CONRAD ENGSTROM may be reached at 218-855-5861 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/the_rad34.