Fertile-Beltrami defense thrives in switch to 9-man football

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FERTILE, Minn. — With two fewer players on the field, the room for error was reduced for the Fertile-Beltrami High School football team this season.

The Falcons had a traditionally strong defense playing in the Class A 11-man ranks. But last spring, the program opted to switch to 9-man this season due to the school’s declining enrollment.

At the time of the change, veteran F-B coach Brian Nelson said, “We’ve told the kids if we’re not good at blocking and tackling, that will be exposed even more in 9-man. There are fewer people on the field. It will show up more if you’re not doing the job.’’

The Falcons’ defense hasn’t struggled in 9-man. It’s gotten even stingier after the switch.

Fertile-Beltrami takes a 7-1 record and the No. 2 seed in Section 6 9-man entering the first round of the playoffs on Tuesday, Oct. 22. The Falcons host Clearbrook-Gonvick in their playoff opener.


Fertile-Beltrami has allowed opponents an average of only 8.3 points a game. That’s the program’s lowest points-against average since 2007, when it had a 6.4 average.

No team has scored more than 16 points against the Falcons; the only team to reach that total was Section 6 top seed Win-E-Mac, which beat Fertile-Beltrami 16-8.

Only unbeaten Win-E-Mac with its 6.5 points-against average is stingier on defense in the state 9-man ranks than the Falcons.

“I think (the defense) has surprised me a little bit,’’ Nelson said.

“It’s been tricky. We’ve had to adapt some of the things we did in 11-man, the different blocking schemes and defensive fronts, over the course of the season. But it’s gone well. It seems like every week we’ve learned something new, something different.’’

One thing the Falcons haven’t done is try to overpower opponents. The biggest defensive starter is 205-pound end Gabe Horgeshimer. No other defensive starter tops 185 pounds.

But there are plenty of playmakers.

Middle linebacker Brandon Van Den Einde paces the team with 64 tackles. He’s followed by Damian Gudvangen (43 tackles, 3 sacks), Hunter Hitchen (40 tackles) and Everett Balstad (38 tackles). Adison McCollum has eight interceptions to go with his 25 tackles.


“If we lined up and tried to go toe to toe with people, it probably wouldn’t have gone as well,’’ Nelson said. “We’ve tried different things -- different slants, different stunts, different fronts. (Craig) Larson, our defensive coordinator, does a great job.

“Our team speed is pretty good. The kids handle their assignments well and they get to the ball.’’

Hitchen’s punting (39.3 average) also is a factor. “He’s helped out the defense quite a few times, getting us out of bad field position,’’ Nelson said.

That the Falcons’ defense is strong isn’t new.

“Everybody here loves playing defense,’’ said Nelson, a 1983 Fertile-Beltrami graduate. “Even back when I played, it was like that. We’ve always taken pride in our defense.’’

Falcons leaders

Rushing -- Micah Tollefson 720 yards, Hunter Hitchen 572, Soren Larson 534.

Passing -- Larson 18-46, 277 yards

Receiving -- Adison McCollum 6-84, Brandon Van Den Einde 4-83, Hunter Bjerk 6-46

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