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High School Football: Stunning comeback gives Warriors Section 8-5A championship

Warriors 23, Alex 14 The key: Brainerd scored 23 unanswered fourth-quarter points Overall: Brainerd 8-2, Alexandria finishes 5-5 Next: Brainerd vs.St. Louis Park winner in Class 5A state quarterfinals at St. Cloud State University 6 p.m. Nov. 11....

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Brandon Kramer (left), Luke Johnson, Brady Anderson and Ben Staehling celebrate after Johnson intercepted the ball in the fourth quarter in the Section 8-5A championship game against Alexandria Friday. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video

Warriors 23, Alex 14

The key: Brainerd scored 23 unanswered fourth-quarter points

Overall: Brainerd 8-2, Alexandria finishes 5-5

Next: Brainerd vs.St. Louis Park winner in Class 5A state quarterfinals at St. Cloud State University 6 p.m. Nov. 11.

It was an epic comeback for a program that has made a tradition of rallying.

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Trailing 14-0 at halftime and after three quarters, the top-seeded Brainerd Warriors rose to register a stunning comeback, scoring three touchdowns in the final 9-plus minutes to defeat the No. 3 Alexandria Cardinals 23-14 and capture the Section 8-5A championship in a snowstorm at Adamson Field Friday.

It was big play after big play for the Warriors in the final quarter. Charlie Geraets, who finished with 160 yards rushing, scored all three Brainerd TDs. Zach Henke kicked the most important extra point of his career. Defensive back Brady Anderson and linebacker Luke Johnson intercepted passes in the final 84 seconds to lock up the victory.

"We preach poise at halftime," Warriors head coach Ron Stolski said. "We said this game isn't over but we do have to play better. This game's not over, and it's up to you. It's up to you, and by gosh 23 points in the fourth quarter, that's pretty impressive. We found some stuff and Charlie just got rolling."

The victory thrusts Brainerd into the 5A state quarterfinals at 6 p.m. Nov. 11 at St. Cloud State University against St. Louis Park.

"We've come a long ways," Henke said. "I think we're only getting better."

"It's going to be a (heck of a) run," Anderson said. "It's going to be awesome."

Brainerd had to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds after a dreadful first half in which it managed one first down and 9 yards of total offense. The Cardinals, meanwhile, were romping through the snow for 252 first-half yards and limited Geraets to 8 yards on 10 carries.

"We were just making mistakes," Geraets said of the first half. "We just were coming out slow, getting pushed back, but we found our groove."

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The Warriors' defense found its groove in the second half, shutting out Alexandria's high-octane offense and yielding only 48 yards while forcing two turnovers. The Cardinals did not cross into Warrior territory in the second half on a field with yard lines almost invisible due to snow.

"I think the big piece was we finally got a little offense where we could get away from Charlie a little bit and mix it up a little bit, throw some of those short routes with a couple quarterback keepers," Ron Stolski said. "Then we found some stuff we were looking for in our formations.

"Just as important was the punting of Joe Klang. We had them in a hole all (second) half long. Defensively, I thought we played superb. It was a great team effort. I told the team before the game that I thought they were one of the toughest bunches of kids we've had in a long time, and I don't mean bully tough. I mean they're just tough, resilient kids."

Klang's 42-yard punt to the Alexandria 1, moments before the third quarter ended, set the tone for the comeback. The Cardinals eventually had to punt to start the fourth and Brainerd started from its 47.

Geraets slipped away for an 18-yard gain, and three plays later, quarterback Joe Stolski charged up the middle for 11 yards. After the Warriors lost 2 yards on a first down, Geraets broke tackle after tackle for Brainerd's first score with 9:42 remaining. Max Zimmerman caught the 2-point conversion pass from Joe Stolski and the Cardinals' lead was shaved to 14-8.

Two possessions later, Klang belted a 49-yard punt to the Alexandria 6. The Cardinals went three and out, punted and Anderson returned it about 21 yards to the Alexandria 25. Two plays later, Geraets sneaked away for another 23-yard score with 1:33 remaining. Henke's kick gave the Warriors the lead for good at 15-14. Henke said he wasn't concerned about slipping or missing the kick.

"I just do what I always do, just repetition, do what I normally do," Henke said.

On Alexandria's next play, Anderson picked off a Michael Empting pass at the Alexandria 40. Three plays later Geraets scampered into the end zone for a 5-yard score. His run for the conversion gave Brainerd its nine-point final margin.

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"It was supposed to be a draw up the middle," Geraets said of the TD. "It was kind of tight, so I bounced it outside. I couldn't find the end zone at first but I found the pylon and took it in."

Henke's subsequent kickoff, followed by a short return, forced the Cardinals to start their final drive at their 26. On their second play, Johnson recorded his second pick of the game at the Alexandria 23. Joe Stolski knelt twice and the Warriors earned their first section title since 2013.

"We don't quit," Anderson said. "We just keep working hard, keep going after them, do the best we can and we came out with the 'W.'"

Alexandria built its 14-point first-half lead despite turning the ball over on its first two possessions, which ended with a fumble recovery by Pat Gervenak and Johnson's first interception. With the field not yet completely snow-covered, 6-foot-3, 235-pound Tyson Hoelscher rumbled for a 64-yard Alexandria TD at 10:20 of the second quarter. Empting ran for the 2-point conversion and an 8-0 lead.

On Alexandria's next possession, Cody Faber, who did not play the second half after absorbing a hard hit, scooted 6 yards to the end zone for a 14-0 edge. The Warriors stymied Empting's run for two.

Empting finished with 112 yards on 27 rushes. Hoelscher added 91 yards on 10 rushes. The Cardinals finished with a 300-198 edge in total yards.

Alexandria 0 14 0 0-14

Brainerd 0 0 0 23-23

Second quarter

Alx-Tyson Hoelscher 64 run (Michael Empting run) 10:20

Alx-Cody Faber 6 run (run fails) 4:56

Fourth quarter

Brd-Charlie Geraets 23 run (Max Zimmerman pass from Joe Stolski) 9:42

Brd-Geraets 23 run (Zach Henke kick) 1:33

Brd-Geraets 5 run (Geraets run) 1:02

Team statistics

Rushing yards: Alx 253, Brd 177

Passing yards: Alx 47, Brd 21

Total offense: Alx 300, Brd 198

Fumbles-lost: Alx 3-1, Brd 1-0

Individual leaders

Rushing: Brd-Joe Stolski 5-24, Charlie Geraets 30-160, Max Zimmerman 2-(-1); Alx-Michael Empting 27-112, Cody Faber 7-50, Tyson Hoelscher 10-91

Passing: Brd-Joe Stolski 3-8-1-21, Geraets 0-1; Alx-Empting 4-13-3-47

Receiving: Brd-Max Boran 1-5, Pat Gervenak 1-9, Mike Bostrom 1-7; Alx-Faber 1-20, Bryce Ludwig 1-9, Cody Branson 1-5, Hoelscher 1-13

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Charlie Geraets (left), Max Zimmerman and Mike Bostrom celebrate Geraets’ touchdown late in the fourth quarter in the Section 8-5A championship game against Alexandria Friday. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video

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