High Schools: Benson Braves football is enjoying a shift in tone
Benson is putting together its best season since 2008 heading into the section playoffs Tuesday.
BENSON — Losing seemed like a foregone conclusion for the Benson football team.
From Week 3 of the 2016 season until Week 6 of the 2019 season, the Braves lost 30 straight games.
“It was tough,” said Benson senior wide receiver/defensive back Abe Peterson. “We were used to losing and we were trying to find a way to win.”
The Braves finally broke through with a 32-12 victory against Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg last fall. Since then, Benson has won more than it has lost, going 7-4 in its last 11 games.
“That (KMS win) told us we could win a football game, that this wasn’t an unbreakable curse,” said senior guard/defensive tackle Sam Grussing. “Ever since then, we started to gain confidence each game after that. Now, we’re just having fun.”
While the Braves lost their regular-season finale against Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted on Wednesday, they finished the regular season with a 4-2 record, putting together a winning season for the first time since going 5-3 in 2008.
And, fourth-seeded Benson will have its first home playoff game since 2004 when fifth-seeded Upsala/Swanville Area comes to Brock Field at 6 p.m. Tuesday for the opening round of the Section 4A playoffs.
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“I remember always thinking, ‘oh man, we’re going to lose anyways so what’s the point of being here?’” said senior linebacker/wide receiver Kellen Schmidt. “But now it’s the complete opposite for practices now. It’s like, ‘oh, we get to practice now because we have a chance at winning.’”
Riding the momentum
Following the win over KMS last fall, the Braves were 3-2 in the final five games of 2019, even picking up an opening-round playoff win over Upsala/Swanville Area, 35-12.
The 2019 season ended days later against eventual section champion Mayer Lutheran, but the late-season run had a lasting effect.
“(Head coach Adam Foslien) said after our Mayer Lutheran loss, ‘We set the foundation for Benson football to come up,’” said sophomore running back/defensive lineman Thomas Dineen.
The weight room became mandatory in the offseason. As Foslien put it, the Braves owed it to the community to get bigger and stronger.
“Our school board voted to pay a strength and conditioning coach,” said Foslien, a 2002 Benson grad in his second season as the Braves’ head coach. “I told the guys that if the school is going to invest in our program, we’ve got to invest our extra time, too.
“There’s hardly been any absences. You see that on Friday nights now, you see us going in the right direction instead of backwards.”
In a huge tonal shift from years past, when Benson found out its Week 1 opponent in the abbreviated 2020 season was BOLD, the team was anxious to play the Class A state runner-up.
“I think in years past, it would be like, ‘Oh no, it’s BOLD,’” Foslien said. “But these guys didn’t miss one beat.”
The Warriors ultimately prevailed, 35-20, capitalizing on a pair of pick-six interceptions. But afterward, Foslien could see the right mindset in his players.
“The guys were mad that we lost,” Foslien said. “When you’ve got 15 seniors, losing isn’t an option once you tasted success.
“We got a good idea of what we can be following the BOLD game. Instead of ‘Oh, we lost again.’ On Monday, we got back to it.”
Benson bounced back in Week 2 with a 48-12 win over Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa. Then in Week 3, after the original game with Parkers Prairie was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, the Braves found a last-minute game at ninth-ranked (in Class A) Hinckley-Finlayson and beat the Jaguars, 33-7.
The next week, Benson faced another top 10 team in sixth-ranked Browerville/Eagle Valley. Again, the Braves won in convincing fashion, 45-6.
“On that three-hour bus ride to Hinckley, a lot of us were talking about how we didn’t want to drive back with a loss,” said senior running back/linebacker Adam Zosel. “It was crazy to see what we were capable of after that Browerville game.”
In both of those ranked wins, Benson was able to shut down power-T rushing attacks.
“The strength of our team is the defensive line and that’s well-suited to stop the power-T,” Grussing said.
“I didn’t expect those outcomes,” Grussing said, before adding with a smirk, “but I’m not opposed to it.”
In Week 5, the Braves made a goal-line stop in overtime to knock off Upsala/Swanville Area, 20-18, cementing a winning record in the process.
Foslien had high hopes for this Benson squad going into 2020.
“This is a group that we knew that if we got the best out of ‘em, good things were going to come out of this,” Foslien said.
On the defense, Schmidt is one of the top contributors with 44 total tackles (15 solo), two sacks and two fumble recoveries. Zosel has chipped in with 41 tackles (15 solo). Abe Peterson, who is a defensive back along with his twin brother Ben, has a team-high three interceptions. Dineen has been a wrecking ball on the line with 39 tackles (21 solo), seven sacks and a fumble recovery.
“The biggest thing (on defense) is people actually want to hit right now,” Schmidt said. “We’ve seen we can win. So we want to win, we want to play to win and we want to hit to win.”
On offense, the run game has flourished with Dineen as the workhorse with 154 carries for 817 yards and 11 touchdowns. Along with a solid offensive line opening holes, Zosel has embraced the lead blocker role after he and Dineen split carries in 2019.
“Last year, I figured I can block a little better and he can run a lot better than me,” Zosel said. “It was working last year, I figured why not carry that into this year and keep that going?”
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Dineen added, “I love Zosel; he’s a great teammate. He’ll do anything to get me yards. And we’ll switch it up and I’ll do anything to get him anything he wants.”
With the ground game working efficiently, the Braves’ aerial attack has been more efficient. Senior Cole Hedman has completed 35 of 70 passes for 647 yards with eight touchdowns and five interceptions. The Peterson twins have been his favorite targets with Abe accounting for 19 catches for 347 yards and five TDs. Ben has 16 grabs for 284 yards and four TDs.
“We’re athletic this year and we try to take advantage of that, whether it’s pounding Tommy 25 to 30 carries a game or we got Ben and Abe on the outside,” Foslien said. “We can audible at the line and that’s something we didn’t have last year. We were trying to get this thing going last year and this year, we want to build off of it.”
The game has been more fun for the players. And, even with crowds being reduced to 250 fans due to COVID-19 restrictions, new-found excitement is all over the program.
“I have people ask me about football that haven’t asked me about sports ever,” Dineen said. “They’re interested in it and we got people asking for tickets and stuff.”
The excitement also helped fill the team’s bellies.
“Last week (before the USA game) at our team meal, someone bought our team meal and I don’t know who that is,” Foslien said. “Hat’s off to them; thank you for that.”
The 2010s were not kind to Benson football. The team finished the decade with an 18-75 record, including one season with a .500 record (5-5 in 2011).
After 30 straight losses and a decade as a cellar-dweller, the Braves’ seniors are relishing in the success of their final year.
“A lot of times in past years, you knew you weren’t going to be all that good, so try to have fun with it,” Grussing said. “This year has been a lot more focused on winning games instead of trying to get through it. We’re having more fun and paying more attention to detail.”
Schmidt added, “Instead of being shocking, it’s more like this is a long time coming. “We’ve been waiting for this.”
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