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AA Football: Braves hold off Belgrade 17-14

by FRITZ NEIGHBOR
Daily Inter Lake | September 1, 2023 10:45 PM

For a win in their home football opener, the Flathead Braves combined just enough scoring with just enough defense, and added in a killer dose of screens.

When it was over the Braves (1-1) had a 17-14 victory over 0-2 Belgrade Friday at Legends Stadium. It wasn’t easy: The hosts had to come up with four turnovers, including a critical fumble that quickly negated what looked like a dooming interception.

Tanner Heichel’s recovery — he also forced a second-quarter fumble that teammate Stephen Riley recovered at the Braves’ 29 — came with 3:51 left in the game.

That plus a 28-yard screen pass to Riley allowed Flathead to squeeze all but the final 15 seconds off the clock. Belgrade promptly had a bad snap that Braden Capser recovered at the 10-yard line, sealing the Braves’ first win in 10 games..

Junior quarterback Brett Pesola completed 14 of 18 passes for 166 yards for the victors, and 67 of those yards went to Riley against an over-pursuing Panther defense.

“Those screens, they take a lot of courage to run,” Flathead coach Caleb Aland. “Coming back inside, to the middle, you can get the snot knocked out of you real quick. But Stephen’s a guy who can run those really well for us; he doesn’t hesitate.

”That last one, when we were backed up there near the end zone, I don’t think the (defender) saw the ball thrown, but he looked like he was right there ready to make the play. Stephen crossed him up and got upfield.”

Pesola got his team on the board with a 21-yard option keeper at 7:52 of the first quarter. He also threaded an option pitch to Ben Bliven that resulted in a 32-yard scamper up the sideline for a 14-7 Braves lead.

Miller Bushnell hit a field goal near the end of the first half — set up by Brody Thornsberry’s leaping 33-yard grab, though he was shaken up on the play and didn’t return — to make it 17-7.

Belgrade opened the second half with a strong kick return and a short field, and closed to 17-14 on a 1-yard run by quarterback Hudsen Rask.

Flathead seemed ready to answer, but after reaching the Belgrade 9 had a jail-break snap to stall the drive. It was the Braves’ last best chance at points.

“Started out so well,” Aland said of his QB, who was 9 of 10 passing at halftime. “Big run, got it into the end zone, and was really reading it well in our option game,. which we knew we had to be really good at.”

After that, Aland said, “Just overall, substitutions in and out, we just weren’t as smooth as the first half. A lot of that probably has to do with Brody being such a key player in those sets.”

The teams traded punts until Pesola fired a pass at tight end Gabe Sims — “On what we thought would be just an easy play to get us going,” Aland said — that Belgrade’s Jace Kemph intercepted at the Flathead 19.

The Braves were in a tight spot, but on second down the Panthers’ Brady Aschim lost the fumble and there was Heichel.

“I don’t know who forced it,” Heichel said. “That was big. That made us win.:”

The group effort included Capser playing a solid game at rush end, and Thornsberry getting an interception.

“The DBs really played their butts off the first half,” Aland said. “The second half the defensive front stepped up and made a lot of stops in the backfield. Braden turned a lot of that inside, that they wanted to take outside.”

Pesola, who shared snaps with Kaleb Sims last week in a 33-0 loss at CMR, held up.

“I thought he played great,” Heichel said. “From last week he improved a lot, with a lot of pressure coming into the game — like us being ranked last in the state. He came in and did really well.”

Belgrade 7 0 7 0 - 14

Flathead 7 10 0 0 - 17

F — Brett Pesola 21 run (Miller Bushnell kick), 7;52-1Q

B — Wesley Ehret 17 pass from Hudsen Rask (Nick Gawarkiewicz kick), 4:28-1Q

F — Ben Bliven 32 run (Bushnell kick), 9:16-2Q

F — Bushnell 30 FG, :22-2Q

B — Rask 1 run (Gawarkiewicz kick), 9:21-3Q.

Individual Statistics

RUSHING: Belgrade (40-161) — Brady Aschim 15-61, Kaysen Konkol 4-31, Ryder Trolley 3-26, Rask 7-24, Brandt DeJongh 4-19, Ryen Sanderson 6-7, Isaac Stock 1-minus 7.

Flathead (32-168) — Bliven 3-66, Pesola 8-39, Nolan Campbell 7-37, Jaden Wilialms 10-36, Braden Capser 1-0, Brody Thornsberry 1-minus 2, Stephen Riley 1-minus 2, Tanner Heichel 1-minus 6.

PASSING: Belgrade:— Raske 2-7-1 for 33 yards; Sanders 0-1-0 for 0 yards; Stock 0-1-0 for 0 yards. Flathead — Pesola 14-18-2 for 166 yards.

RECEIVING: Belgrade — Ehret 1-17, Aschim 1-16. Flathead — Stephen Riley 3-67, Blieven 3-13, Thornswberry 2-43, Campbell 2-17, Gabe Sims 2-11, B.Capser 1-8, Heichel 1-7.

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Flathead's Braden Capser (47) tackles Belgrade quarterback Hudsen Rask (2) on a run in the fourth quarter at Legends Stadium on Friday, Sept. 1. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Flathead defenders stop a run in the first half at Legends Stadium on Friday, Sept. 1. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Flathead wide receiver Brody Thornsberry (88) catches a pass in the second quarter against Belgrade at Legends Stadium on Friday, Sept. 1. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Flathead quarterback Brett Pesola (4) looks to throw in the second quarter against Belgrade at Legends Stadium on Friday, Sept. 1. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Flathead cornerback Tanner Heichel (16) celebrates after recovering a fumble in the fourth quarter against Belgrade at Legends Stadium on Friday, Sept. 1. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Flathead running back Nolan Campbell (24) picks up yardage after a reception in the third quarter against Belgrade at Legends Stadium on Friday, Sept. 1. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Flathead safety Brody Thornsberry (88) intercepts a pass in the second quarter against Belgrade at Legends Stadium on Friday, Sept. 1. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Flathead quarterback Brett Pesola (4) picks up yardage on a run in the first quarter against Belgrade at Legends Stadium on Friday, Sept. 1. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Flathead head coach Caleb Aland celebrates with running back Jaden Williams (1) after quarterback Brett Pesola's touchdown run in the first quarter against Belgrade at Legends Stadium on Friday, Sept. 1. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Flathead wide receiver Ben Bliven (2) heads down the sideline on a run in the third quarter against Belgrade at Legends Stadium on Friday, Sept. 1. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)