Underestimate this Brainerd High School football team at your own risk.
Small in numbers but large in heart, the Panthers used an innovative offense and a tough-minded defense -- and many of the same players doing a lot of the heavy lifting on each side -- to topple East Hamilton 21-14 in the first round of the Class 4A state playoffs.
"I have to thank God for this because He's been with us all year," Brainerd coach Stanley Jackson said. "You look at our numbers and their numbers, and you see what kind of effort it took for this team to do this."
The effort was apparent, but the Brainerd offense was deviously effective. With coordinator Tyrus Ward pulling every string from East Hamilton High to Hamilton Place mall -- the Panthers used some wing-T, a lot of spread, a little single-wing, some pro sets and even mixed in a jump pass -- Brainerd created space and made the most of their chances.
"Give them a ton of credit, because they did a great job of preparing for us and for this game," East Hamilton coach Ted Gatewood said after a historic season for the Hurricanes ended. "We misfired on some of our chances, and they made the most of theirs."
With a packed house for East Hamilton's first playoff game, the Hurricanes started quickly. They moved 55 yards -- all of them on the ground -- on their second possession, which was capped by Hunter Moore's 1-yard sneak for a 7-0 lead.
But neither the crowd nor the moment mattered to the Panthers, who were undaunted and unfazed.
Brainerd do-it-all senior Maleek Rooks scored on his first carry of the game, a 1-yard sneak that cut the lead to 7-6. Despite trailing at halftime, the Panthers had outgained the Hurricanes 147-111 in the first 24 minutes and remained steadfast in their approach.
"The person that wins the backyard fight is the one that's willing to fight the longest," Rooks said, repeating the Panthers' practice-week mantra. "All the work, all the two-a-days, all the sweat -- it's all worth it for this feeling right now."
Rooks' second 1-yard touchdown run capped an impressive nine-play, 72-yard touchdown march that gave the Panthers the lead for good. It was a determined drive -- Brainerd converted two key third-down tries, including a Sam Caffey to Rooks screen pass that covered 53 yards that set up the scoring run.
"We worked a lot this week on the passing game, and we executed that," said Caffey, a sophomore who completed 12 of 20 throws for 148 yards. "We feel like we're always the underdog, but that's how we like it."
Chris Davis recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, and Brainerd scored two plays later on Isaiah Hayes' 2-yard run.
It was too big of a hole for East Hamilton, which got a Moore-to-Tre Herndon touchdown pass in the final minute to close the gap. The Hurricanes' unsuccessful onside kick set off Brainerd's celebration and ensured the Panthers of at least another week of practice.