Football: Brainerd storms back to end Alexandria's season
The Alexandria football team had been to 10 state tournaments in its program history coming into Friday, but only once did those come in back-to-back seasons in 2001 and 2002.
The Cardinals were well on their way to laying claim to that again as the defending section champions held a 14-0 lead through three quarters on a snowy night in Brainerd for the Section 8, Class 5A title game. That final frame is when the Warriors erupted for three touchdowns and a 23-14 win that sends them to the state tournament for the first time since a runner-up finish in 2013 and the 10th time in program history.
“So many things are going through my head,” Alexandria senior quarterback Michael Empting said. “Thinking about the fellow seniors and what we’ve gone through together since seventh grade, padding up together and going at it. It’s disappointment. I thought we had that game. Brainerd, hats off to them, they kept battling and came out on top.”
Brainerd’s star running back Charlie Geraets said that doubt even starting creeping into their minds after going scoreless through three quarters.
Geraets put up 290 yards on the ground when Brainerd won 50-43 during the regular season at Alexandria. On Friday, the Cardinals held him in check until a 23-yard touchdown with 9:42 left in the fourth quarter made it a 14-8 game after the two-point conversion. Geraets erupted with two more touchdowns from there.
The Cardinals had a couple more drives with opportunities to run the clock out, but were forced to punt deep in their own territory with 1:47 left. Brainerd’s Brady Anderson returned the punt to the Cardinals’ 25-yard line. Geraets did the rest a couple plays later, running 23 yards untouched to tie the game. Zach Henke’s kick on the PAT was good for the 15-14 lead.
“He was just patient with his blocking in the second half,” Alexandria head coach Mike Empting said of Geraets. “He just let things set up a little bit better and let our defenders commit before he made his move. The first half, I thought we did a good job of getting to him, bottling him up.”
Geraets had just eight yards rushing through the first two quarters. He finished with 161 and three scores. Alexandria had one last chance to drive the field, but Anderson intercepted Empting on the very first play after Brainerd took the lead. Geraets took it from there with a five-yard touchdown run and a two-point conversion that ended things.
“After the first half, we just came out more fired up and ready to go,” Geraets said. “When we got into the fourth quarter, it was just clicking. We made plays. After that first half, coming out and winning this game is the best feeling. ”
Things didn’t start well for the Cardinals with turnovers on their first two possessions, but it was not indicative of how things would go for Alexandria through 24 minutes. The Cardinals outgained the Warriors 239-36 and led 14-0 at the break.
Senior Tyson Hoelscher, at 6 feet, 3 inches and 235 pounds, has played on the line much of this season but provided a power option in the run game in the playoffs. He raced 65 yards early in the second quarter for the first touchdown and an 8-0 lead after the Empting two-point conversion run. Senior Cody Faber then capped off a drive with a six yard touchdown run.
“The first half couldn’t have played out any better,” coach Empting said. “The defense played well, the offense held the ball, moved it and put it in the end zone. We had to come out and do the same thing in the second half, but we struggled to move the ball. They just kind of packed things in on us and we had a hard time moving it.”
The snow that fell all game eventually coated the turf. Neither team had much success throwing the ball. Alexandria’s run game was then hurt with the loss of Faber late in the first half when he went down with an injury. Faber never returned and the Cardinals’ offense was never the same.
“I’m proud of these guys,” coach Empting said. “They had a heck of a run. We did not have a lot of numbers. We knew that. The guys who were out there played a lot of football on both sides of the ball. They overcame a lot of stuff - injuries, and that continued tonight. They just kept battling and that’s what they did throughout the season.”
The Warriors (8-2) face St. Louis Park (7-3) in the state opener at 6 p.m. on Nov. 11 at Husky Stadium in St. Cloud. St. Louis Park upset previously unbeaten Robbinsdale Cooper in the Section 5 title game.
A year after losing 21 seniors on a state tournament team, the Cardinals made it back to a third straight section championship game. They finished 5-5 overall in a competitive district and section. The Cardinals' wins included victories against a state tournament team in Andover and a St. Cloud Tech team that lost by just one point in the section title game on Friday to defending Class 5A champion Elk River.
“Biggest thing I’m going to remember is everything we fought this year,” Michael Empting said. “We had to fight for everything this year, and we did fight. Hats off to every single one of our guys. It’s just a bunch of great guys to be around.”
BRAINERD - 0 0 0 23 - 23
ALEXANDRIA - 0 14 0 0 - 14
SCORING - FIRST QUARTER - No scoring
SECOND QUARTER - Alexandria - Tyson Hoelscher 65-yard run; Michael Empting two-point conversion run; Alexandria - Cody Faber 6-yard run; Two-point conversion no good
THIRD QUARTER - No scoring
FOURTH QUARTER - Brainerd - Charlie Geraets 23-yard run; Joe Stolski two-point conversion pass to Max Zimmerman; Brainerd - Geraets 23-yard run; Zach Henke PAT; Brainerd - Geraets 5-yard run; Geraets two-point conversion