There are worse things than winning ugly.
Just ask the Mandan football team how it feels to lose impressively.
Watch Mandan play, and there's little doubt that the Braves are legitimate contenders for a berth in the AAA playoffs.
Yet here the Braves sit a month into the season with a 1-3 record and an 0-2 West Region mark. That's courtesy of an impressive win, two overtime losses and a one-touchdown defeat.
Mandan has outscored its four opponents 82-62 but finds itself on the losing side of the ledger.
Senior Noah Gerhardt, a third-year starter at center, said the Mandan seniors had high hopes for this season, and they're not ready to turn their backs on their dreams just yet.
"We knew we came in really strong. We knew our senior leadership would be really good with 13 guys who have been playing together for a long time," said Gerhardt, a 5-foot-10, 245 pounder. "We knew we'd be really solid, and get lots of wins."
After opening with a 40-0 victory over Grand Forks Central, Mandan suddenly found itself snakebit. The Braves lost 21-16 to Fargo South in overtime, let a 7-0 halftime lead get away in a 14-7 loss to Century and fell victim to Bismarck 27-20, again in overtime.
So the Braves have played three ranked teams and obviously belonged on the same field with all of them.
Senior quarterback Kaden Krause has no doubt about Mandan's abilities, the three wrenching losses notwithstanding.
"We expected to be 2-0 (in the West Region). We knew we could do it," he said.
He still believes the Braves can do it. It's just that the challenge has gotten bigger.
"It just makes us want to work harder so we can reach our goals -- reaching the playoffs and, ultimately, winning a state championship," Krause said.
Krause said the only way for the Braves to assure themselves a spot in the AAA playoffs is to win the four remaining regional games against Dickinson, Legacy, Minot and Williston.
Dickinson is the next hurdle, Friday night on the road.
"We have to put our nose down and come out on all cylinders each game and do our best," Krause said. "... We probably have to win all four of them."
Krause doesn't deny that there's been some frustration involved in three straight difficult setbacks, but he's not ready to throw a pity party.
"Maybe it's a little frustrating, but ultimately it is what it is, so we just have to work harder and get the win the next week," he observed. "Every week from here on out we've got to get the win."
Gerhardt couldn't agree more.
"Dickinson is like the championship game. We've got to play every game like it's for the championship," he noted.
Gerhardt said there's been a second-half bugaboo in each of Mandan's three losses.
"We have to come out every game and play both halves -- play a complete game," he emphasized. "The games we've lost, we've come out and played the first half really well. Then halftime comes and the momentum just switches."
Winning the four remaining regional games may seem like a Herculean task, but Gerhardt believes the Braves are equal to the job.
"I believe so, yeah. We're ready to play. We're ready to compete and get to the playoffs. We'd be the first (Mandan) team since 2011 to do it," he said. "We've just got to put all the pieces together and play all four quarters."
Todd Sheldon, Mandan's head coach, admits the Braves have been backed into something of a corner. But he also believes this team has the moxie it needs to fight its way out.
"This is a don't-flinch group. We've told them that not every call or every bounce is going to go their way. Their job it to line up and play the next down, and through the course of the season we've seen them do that," Sheldon said.
Sheldon said three hair's breadth losses in a row don't necessitate any major changes in personnel or tactics.
"There are some psychological things that start to happen because of the way we've played," he said, referring to the second-half issues. "We've got to address that, but we're not going to do anything radically different schematically. ... We might look at how we rotate kids to see if we can keep them fresh for the second half."
The rest of Friday's West Region schedule has Legacy at Minot and Century at Williston. Bismarck plays host to Fargo South in an inter-regional game.
In the East Region, the state's top-ranked team, West Fargo, plays host to Grand Forks Red River. Grand Forks Central visits Fargo Davies and West Fargo Sheyenne plays at Fargo North in the other East Region games.