Alex football: Cards try to overcome lack of depth in top two classesThe Alex captains will lead the way as younger teammates get their feet wet at the varsity level.
By: Eric Morken, Alexandria Echo Press
Alexandria football coach Mike Empting called the kids in his top two classes this year outstanding; he just wishes he had more of them there.
Empting knew the low number of athletes out for football in this year’s junior and senior classes would mean a lot of sophomores would be competing for starting and back-up positions. That presents a challenge going up against senior-laden teams in the Central Lakes Conference. So how big of a concern is it for this team?
“To be successful, you have to have that senior presence,” Empting said after the team’s morning practice last Tuesday. “You have to have a team that’s led by seniors, not just because they have the most vested in it, but also, they’re older. Seventeen, 18-year-old kids are bigger and stronger and more mature than 16-year-old kids…Is it concerning? I think at the beginning of the year, probably, until some of our younger kids get some experience.”
That means staying healthy will be important for the Cardinals as they head into their season opener at home against St. Cloud Tech tonight, Friday. Alexandria has already taken a hit in that department after senior captain Nick Knoblach had sports hernia surgery last Tuesday. It is an injury that is expected to keep him out 4-6 weeks.
“It’s tough to replace an athlete like Nick,” Empting said. “And he has that experience because he played for us there last year as well. Those are two things that are difficult to replace. We have kids who are going to step in there. We have to. We have to move forward.”
Knoblach from the sidelines and his five other co-captains will help them do that as the expected leaders of this team. They aren’t willing to accept a rebuilding season after all the work they put in to prepare for their senior year.
Tyler Meyer (OT/DT), Max Flowers (DT), Chase Duwenhoegger (OG/DT), Ted Deitz (OT/DE) and Tyler Kelly (LB/RB) made that clear after morning practice last Tuesday. Meyer said the Cardinals’ goals haven’t changed. They may have guys who still need to establish themselves, but they have put in the work in the off-season and know what it will take to accomplish their goals.
“It’s just the little things,” Meyer said. “You listen to the coaches. It’s fundamentals like footwork, knowing your plays and just trusting that the guy next to you knows what he’s doing as well.”
A lot of the captains bring back valuable experience from last season. Flowers was named the most valuable defensive lineman as a junior, while Duwenhoegger was named the most improved player on the team.
“It helps a lot,” Flowers said of seeing the field as a junior. “If I didn’t play last year, I would be a little nervous, but now I got everything down, and I know what I’m supposed to do out there.’
They played integral roles in Alexandria’s resurgence down the stretch last fall. The Cardinals’ only three losses in the last seven weeks came to Rocori (twice) and Bemidji, the two teams that played for the Class AAAA state title.
“I definitely say we’re hungry,” Deitz said. “We lost to the state championship team, which we could have beaten them. We had them on the ropes. We’re ready to go out there, and we think if we do our job, we can beat anyone out there.”
The Cardinals will once again be relying on a first-year quarterback to control the offense. John Vogeler has the athleticism Empting likes his quarterbacks to have, with the option to both run and throw the ball. He also has plenty of varsity experience in other sports after playing golf and averaging 11.8 points per game in basketball as a sophomore.
He will likely be handing it off to some young backs this season in guys like sophomore Jake Bear, who was taking a lot of reps last Tuesday. Last year, the Cardinals relied heavily on seniors Steffen Morical, Gideon Burnham and Brock Wood to carry the load. Now that role falls to Kelly, who is glad to help be a leader at the position.
“I’m just glad that I have a responsibility now,” Kelly said. “The line’s a big part of it too, and I’m just happy that I’m one of the people that gets to take charge and help drive this team.”
Empting called the offensive line one of the strengths coming into the season. That could mean another strong year on the ground for a team that ran for 2,079 yards in 2011.
“You get to play with some of the best offensive linemen in the conference,” Duwenhoegger said of this group. “I think we’ve had a little bit of a slow start, but I think we’ll start to pick it up again. I feel confident, and I feel really good about our team.”
Empting always tries to have his kids playing their best football heading into the playoffs. The Cardinals will be competing in a new section this year once they get there after the Minnesota State High School League voted to move to seven classes in football, including nine-man.
Alexandria will move from Section 8-4A to Section 8-5A with Moorhead, St. Cloud Tech, Sartell-St. Stephen, Sauk Rapids-Rice and St. Cloud Apollo. The teams they have to get through have changed a bit, but their attitude hasn’t. It may take time to get some guys adjusted to the varsity level, but the Cardinals want to be a tough out once the playoffs come around.
“We have the same goals of getting to the section, being competitive,” Meyer said. “We might not have a lot of superstars on the team, but we have a lot of guys that put in the work in the off-season who have been working hard. They want to make something of their year, whether they be juniors or seniors and all the way down.”