Mark Gibson has seen a lot of tough schedules in his 19 seasons as head football coach at Bismarck High.
But this year’s gauntlet – Fargo South, Fargo Davies and West Fargo for non-region games – followed by the always-daunting West Region slate, had the Demons on high alert early.
“Honestly, it’s the toughest schedule we’ve played in my time here,” said Gibson, who owns a banner career-winning percentage of .819 at BHS. “It’s not an excuse or a complaint or anything along those lines. That’s just the task we have in front of us and it certainly doesn’t change the ultimate goal we have every year.”
The early returns have been a little up and down, although there’s been more good than bad. After a 28-point victory to start the season over Davies, the No. 5-ranked Demons (2-1) ran into the West Fargo buzzsaw 13 days ago, losing 41-0. The top-ranked Packers have outscored their opponents 126-34 through three games.
“That was embarrassing for everybody and a real eye-opener,” Gibson said of the West Fargo setback. “When you’re playing quality teams every week, you’re going to lose games, we can deal with that. But I just didn’t think we competed the way we needed to. We didn’t show the necessary fight.”
Gibson was looking for a positive response and his team delivered last Friday as Jalen Sprecher ran for four touchdowns in an impressive 35-14 road victory over a highly-touted Minot team.
“That was a real nice bounce-back effort by our kids. We took a lot of positive things out of that game particularly with how our offensive line played and how we played defensively,” Gibson said. “What’s important now is that we build on that. There are a lot of things we still have to do better and that starts tonight with a really impressive Mandan team.”
The Braves, who square off with the Demons tonight at 7 p.m. at the Bowl, have caught everyone’s eye in the early going.
Coach Todd Sheldon’s team has allowed just 35 points through three games, but the Braves have just one win to show for it. After routing Grand Forks Central to start the season (40-0), Mandan went down to the wire against Fargo South and Bismarck Century in one-score losses.
“We feel like we’ve played well, but obviously not quite well enough in two of those games,” said Sheldon. “The leadership from our seniors has been outstanding. They’ve really set the tone for our younger kids and we’ve had enough juniors and sophomores step in to help put the pieces in place.”
The Braves have been especially stout on defense, holding No. 4-ranked Fargo South to 21 points before dropping a 21-14 slugfest to the 2-time defending state champs (Bismarck Century) last week.
Linebacker Quinn Halstengard has been a rock in the middle, while youngsters Danek Vega, Kobe Poitra and Jaxon Duttenhefer are providing a sturdy wall up front.
“We’re getting 11 kids to the ball with their hair on fire,” Sheldon said. “We’ve played well defensively. It hasn’t translated into getting a lot of turnovers yet, but that’s kind of the next thing we’re looking for.”
Gibson said the Braves are the real deal.
“They very easily could be 3-0. I don’t think there’s any question about that,” the BHS head coach said. “To a large degree, they’ve dominated all three of their games. They just haven’t been able to punch it in the end zone quite enough.
“The other thing that really stands out is that they don’t quit. They play really hard. They keep coming at you.”
Sheldon said the Demons present traditional problems. But on top of Bismarck’s perennially powerful ground game, quarterback Will Madler and a talented group of pass-catchers – Tanner Davis, Tate Doppler, Matt Trolliey among others – make the task even tougher.
“They’re going to get their yards, we just hope to limit their explosive plays that can really turn momentum in their favor,” Sheldon said. “We need to keep their quarterback in the pocket and hopefully make them earn everything they get. Defensively, it’s a big test for us, but our kids are looking forward to it.”
Mandan will rely on senior quarterback Kaden Krause, who spreads the ball around like a good point guard. In last week’s game against Century, Krause hit seven different receivers. The game before it was eight. Isaac Watson and Joey Clark top the talented crew.
“They just have a lot of good players,” Gibson said. “They have tall receivers. Our DBs are about half their size. (Krause) has played well. I think it’s going to be a really good football game and a really good test for us in terms of where we’re at right now.”