Axemen stop Green Bay in season opener

Courtesy of Bemidji Pioneer:

Bemidji, MN — Despite a slow start, the Bemidji Axemen’s regular-season opener at the Sanford Center showcased what could be a madcap season for the Indoor Football League’s newest franchise.

The Axemen and the visiting Green Bay Blizzard went back-and-forth in Saturday night’s game, but it took a DeMario Pippen 16-yard scamper with just more than seven minutes to go in regulation, followed by a 23-yard field goal by Josiah Powell with 50 seconds left, to secure a 40-36 Axemen victory — the team’s first-ever victory.

“That’s indoor football,” Axemen head coach Robert Fuller said. “This game was indicative of what indoor football is all about. It went down to the wire. It was very exciting for our fans and we’re pretty excited to come out with a win.”

In a game that saw seven lead changes and wasn’t decided until the final play, the Axemen (1-0) took a 27-23 lead into the fourth quarter thanks to an outstanding effort from wide receiver DeJay Lester.

Down 23-21 with a minute to go in the third and with the ball on the Green Bay 15-yard-line, Wanket threw a bomb to Lester, who dove headfirst into the padded dasher boards in the end zone.

Lester made the catch with a Green Bay defender glued to him the whole way — who must have unintentionally unbuckled some of his equipment.

The University of Wyoming product said he didn’t realize the ball was coming at him until the final minute.

“It was a go-route, but I didn’t know he was going to throw it my way,” Lester said. “I re-adjusted and looked back. I was like, oh snap, the ball is here. So I had to re-adjust to it and ended up catching it but the DB tried to take it.”

Lester, fired up about making the catch, bounced up to spike the football. But as he did so, his pants fell to his ankles, igniting an already feisty crowd even more.

The Blizzard (0-1) re-took the lead two minutes into the final quarter when running back Stephen Knight ran for an 8-yard score then dove headfirst over some Bemidji defenders for the touchdown.

That gave the Blizzard a 30-27 lead, but when the Axemen blocked a Blizzard field goal attempt with 7:45 to play they recovered it in the endzone to earn a safety and make it a one-point game, 30-29.

The Axemen finally took the lead seconds later on Pippen’s touchdown run; then Wanket found Lester for a two-point conversion pass to make it 37-30.

Fuller thought the conversion was one of the game’s bigger plays.

“They did a great job covering it but Hunter made a big-time play when we needed it,” he said. “He ended up scrambling and doing what he needed to do to get us a win.”

After he made the conversion catch Lester, perhaps knowing that he now had to top his pantsless celebration, took the ball and went to midfield, where he pretended to use the ball as a pillow.

“We’re just trying to give the fans something to look forward to,” Lester said with a laugh when asked about his celebrations. “We try and be a fan-friendly game. We want to celebrate with them so that’s what I was trying to do.”

Powell’s kick later in the game ended up being key. He had missed three other field goals in the game but hit the one that counted with 50 seconds remaining.

“I was surprised we had as many problems as we did with our field goal unit, and that’s obviously something we need to get fixed, but Josiah came up big for us when we needed him the most,” Fuller said.

At least he wasn’t Blizzard kicker David VanVoris, who missed six field goals on the game, including one blocked by the Axemen late in the game that gave Bemidji its safety.

In fact, that field goal might have been the difference, as the Blizzard scored with 15 seconds left in the game to trail just 40-36.

After Powell’s field goal, Donte Sawyer returned a kick to the Axemen 5-yard line and they puncedh it in when quarterback Taylor Perkins found Markeith Summers for a short pass.

However, the Axemen broke up the two-point conversion and caught an onside kick to hold on for the win.

Wanket completed just seven of 19 passes but had 144 yards and three touchdowns; he also had one on the ground.

Lester, Warren Matthews Jr. and Ryan Balentine each caught touchdown passes for Bemidji.

“With an experienced quarterback and very good skill position players, we able to spread the ball around and get it into everybody’s hands,” Fuller said. “That’s what we needed to do against a very tough Green Bay defense.”

Perkins went 26-of-40 passing for 214 yards and three touchdowns for Green Bay.

“We have a lot of things to work on but we played well,” Fuller said.

“Bottom line is, it doesn’t matter how it looks as long as you get the ‘W’.”

The Axemen travel to Grand Island, Neb., to take on the Nebraska Danger next week.