Sun sets on Citizens Field
It took a community effort to get Citizens Field ready for its first football game in the fall of 1972. Now after 42 seasons and countless memorable games, that same community will say goodbye.
The Cardinal football team will host Fergus Falls tonight, Wednesday, in the final game before Alexandria moves onto a beautiful turf field when students move into the new high school in the fall of 2014.
“I think it will feel a little surreal,” current head coach Mike Empting said. “I’ve been here since 1997 and it’s been a source of pride for our team and I think the community as well. It’s a great home field advantage. It’s going to be tough. There have been some pretty amazing games on that field, and there’s a lot of memories in that grass.”
Ed Christopherson was the first coach to lead a team onto Citizens Field. Christopherson was willing to finance the bleachers for the stadium himself once they became available out of Osseo in the summer of 1972. The school board intervened to help with the money, but then he had to figure out how to get those bleachers to Alexandria.
“My answer was simply, ‘Get my assistant coaches together and borrow implement trucks from dealers,’ ” Christopherson said. “It took us two trips, the latter being almost a disaster when the shifting of the steel on our trip home just about caused a major turnover.”
The bleachers arrived safely and were assembled. Rocks were cleared from around the field and lights were erected, all with the help of students and adults in the community.
Since then, this stadium has hosted track meets, graduations and many other community events. It’s been the home to state and section championship football teams and the scene of some huge wins over storied programs.
Four head coaches have manned the sidelines for the Cardinal football program since 1972 in Christopherson, Sheridan Jaeche, Dennis Kalpin and Empting.
Getting coaches to pick just one game as the most memorable that they ever coached in at Citizens Field proved to be impossible for some. That was the challenge presented to them as they looked back before this program moves forward into a new home next fall.
MIKE EMPTING (2008-present)
Empting’s second season as a head coach featured a team that could hold its own in a shootout and that’s exactly what the Cardinals found themselves in against Brainerd on October 9, 2009.
Brainerd quarterback Reid Mimmack ran in a touchdown with around five minutes left that night to give his team a 35-31 advantage as the snow started to fall late in the game. That was more than enough time for an Alexandria offense that featured Colin Erickson at quarterback, Parker Giroux and Matt Peterson at running back and Mark Whiting as Erickson’s favorite target on the outside.
Alexandria methodically marched down the field and burned more than four minutes off the clock to get the ball to the Brainerd 23-yard line. That’s when Peterson took the handoff on a buck sweep and broke a tackle before getting to the outside for a touchdown run that sealed a 38-35 win.
It was a game that featured plenty of emotions as Alexandria built a 20-7 lead when Erickson hit Ross Thompson for a 73-yard touchdown strike in the second quarter. Brainerd rallied back to take a lead before the Cardinals ultimately got the last laugh against one of the premier programs in the CLC.
“It was kind of an amazing finish with the snow coming down and scoring that touchdown in the final minute,” Empting said. “Then that was the last time we played Brainerd for two years, as well.”
Alexandria’s best athletes stepped up with big nights to help the Cardinals make a statement. Erickson ran for 119 yards and threw for 172 more. Whiting caught five balls for 92 yards, while Peterson led the ground game with 129 yards and Giroux added 47 yards and two touchdowns.
Alexandria won its next four games by a combined 96 points before ultimately dropping a heartbreaker to Sartell-St. Stephen in the section finals.
“We really hit our stride and our playmakers started making plays for us,” Empting said. “Beating Brainerd, which they are always tough, they’re a great rival for us. To get that win late in the season heading into the playoffs was just a huge momentum builder and a big confidence boost to our kids.”
DENNY KALPIN (1991-2007)
No one saw the kind of success at Citizens Field that Denny Kalpin did after he came to Alexandria from Fargo South High School in 1991.
Kalpin came into a program that was in the midst of a 19-game losing streak at the start of his first year. By the time he retired after the fall of 2007, he had amassed a record of 126-58 with the Cardinals.
He led six teams to the state tournament, including a runner-up finish in 1994. Perhaps that’s why he found it impossible to name just one game that stood out at as the most memorable at Citizens Field.
“There’s so many,” Kalpin said. “We had regular season games, but we had state playoff games, too. We had two state playoff games here. Hopkins was the first one in 1999 and then when we played Cretin-Derham Hall in 2002.”
Getting a perennial state power like the Raiders on a program’s home field in outstate Minnesota is an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often.
“They were wondering if we had stands,” Kalpin said with a laugh. “They were wondering if we had lights. Cretin-Derham Hall didn’t know how far out we lived. So they were here mid-afternoon and messing around all day here because they didn’t know how far they had to come.”
Alexandria’s Jason Erickson and Tom Steidl both had two touchdowns in the state quarterfinal game that night. Erickson scored on a 30-yard run and then a 90-yard kickoff return to open the second half. The defense also frustrated the Raiders by creating five turnovers on the night.
That helped the Cardinals to a 28-19 win. It was the second straight year that Alexandria had beaten Cretin-Derham Hall after winning 15-13 in St. Paul the year before. Some wins mean more than others and beating a big-school power like the Raiders in a state tournament game at home is one of those games.
It was part of a long list of games that Kalpin still looks back on. Alexandria beat St. Cloud Tech 15-9 at home in two overtimes during the section semifinals in 1999 behind a goal-line stand from the defense. His first game in 1991 also stands out when Alexandria beat Bemidji 17-13 behind two extra points and a field goal from Mike Zilliox.
“Alex had gone, I think, two and a half years without winning a football game,” Kalpin said. “It wasn’t me breaking [that losing streak]. I never won too many games. I could have done a better job of calling plays and that kind of thing, but I think it was good for the community. The kids just felt good about it.”
New lights were erected at the field in 1996, and they gave fans a good view of some great performances by running backs Shawn Nelson and Ryan Nodland. Alexandria scored just 50 points in eight games during the 1992 season. In 1996, Nelson (24) and Nodland (25) combined to score 49 touchdowns themselves.
“We had two of the best running backs that Alexandria will ever see, I think,” Kalpin said. “They ran kickoffs back. They ran punts back. They scored from everywhere.”
Citizens Field was also home to the first game Alexandria played after the country was shaken by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The Cardinals hosted Moorhead three days later.
After a 32-7 Alexandria win, the two teams gathered at midfield for a postgame prayer. It’s moments like that, along with the memorable wins and losses, that will make it hard to say goodbye for Kalpin.
“There’s going to be some nostalgia there, sure,” he said. “It’s just that we’ve done so much work on the field and made it into a class football stadium, really. I think the thing that made it great is the kids that played on it.”
RON DOMSCHOT (Defensive
Alexandria’s Ron Domschot served as a defensive coordinator under three head coaches at Citizens Field, including Jaeche’s entire tenure from 1978-1990.
Alexandria won three Central Lakes Conference championships during that time, including the program’s first in 1981. Brainerd came to town on October 30 of that year with Alexandria having already clinched at least a share of the CLC title.
This was an opportunity for the Cardinals to win it outright against a Warriors team that had caused Alexandria fits in recent years.
“We don’t have it locked up ourselves,” Jaeche told the Lake Region Press leading up to that game. “If we lose to Brainerd, we’re going to tie and give [Elk River] a trophy. I don’t think the kids want to do that.”
The Cardinals made sure they didn’t have to worry about that in front of what Domschot called the biggest crowd he ever coached in front of at Citizens Field. Quarterback Mike Sisko hit Doug Swanson for a 23-yard touchdown early in the game, but Brainerd still led 12-7 after the first quarter.
It was a lead that didn’t last long. Sisko found Swanson again, this time on an 18-yard strike that gave Alexandria a 14-12 lead after the extra point. The Cardinals controlled the game from there as Scott Beers scored on runs of four and five yards and Dan Suckow added a 24-yard rushing touchdown on their way to a 34-12 win.
“This was really a senior dominated team and they had lost to Brainerd in a game the year before that was very close,” Domschot said. “A lot of them were coming back. Practically the whole team was seniors and they wanted to beat Brainerd so bad.”
Many of those seniors came back to Alexandria earlier this year for a reunion of that 1981 team. They didn’t talk much about a 24-7 loss to Wayzata that they suffered the following week in the state quarterfinals. What they remembered was the night they beat the Warriors to finish off a CLC title.
“It was like coming home again,” Domschot said of the reunion. “It was just so much fun…This was the game they talked about. They kind of forgot that we lost to Wayzata, but this is the game they all remembered because it was such a big game for us, and it was home.”
ED CHRISTOPHERSON (1968-1977)
It wasn’t hard for Christopherson to pinpoint the season from which he would find his most memorable game as a head coach at Citizens Field.
Alexandria ran the table in 1974 to finish 12-0 and as the Class A state champion after a 26-7 win over Chaska. The defense that season delivered seven shutouts and opponents averaged less than five points per game against them.
It was the defense that made the biggest play during the closest game of that 1974 season. Willmar came to Alexandria on a cold and windy night on October 18 and scored a touchdown with almost a minute on the clock that left them trailing by just one.
Instead of kicking the extra point, Willmar went for two and the win. Quarterback Bryan Peterson rolled to his right before deciding to run for the right corner of the end zone. He was met at the goal line by a host of Alexandria players as Don Clarquist, Bob Olson, Randy Ogren and Doug Lesage stopped Peterson less than six inches short of the end zone to secure the win.
“I still think about it every once in a while,” Christopherson said. “I think, ‘Wow, the Lord let us get that game.’ The same thing for the other wins. I don’t believe it was luck. We had good athletes, and they performed very well.”
Quarterback Bob Beliveau and Olson, a running back, overcame two touchdowns by Willmar’s Joel Paffrath that night by running the option. Beliveau scored both of Alexandria’s touchdowns on the ground and finished with 141 yards rushing. Olson added 109 yards on 17 carries.
“We knew that we had what it took to have a good season but anything can happen,” Christopherson said. “When we got past Willmar, we felt that we had a real chance of getting in. Then we went the rest of the way with fairly good success.”
That win wrapped up the West Central Conference championship for Alexandria. With no section tournament at that time, they needed every win they got just to make the playoffs. Alexandria rolled over Detroit Lakes 59-14 the following week before taking down Bemidji and then Albany in the state semifinals to secure its spot in the state title game.
“It was an experience that we’ll never forget,” Christopherson said. “I think that’s true for any championship like that… Every once in a while I run into the athletes from that team and they don’t forget.”