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One season turnaround gives Cards CLC title

Echo Press photos by Eric Morken Cardinal Sam Johnson (4) controlled the ball during action earlier this season.1 / 2
Echo Press photos by Eric Morken Sam Olson (10), cut off an opponent's approach to the ball.2 / 2

From four wins to Central Lakes Conference champions in one year.

That is what the Alexandria boys' soccer team accomplished with a 2-0 win over St. Cloud Apollo last Thursday night at Citizens Field. The Cardinals needed a win or a tie in their last two conference games to wrap up sole possession of the conference title. They took advantage of the first opportunity with two second-half goals and a stingy defensive effort that moved them to 10-2 in conference play.

"The turnaround definitely helps add to the drama associated with winning the CLC," head coach David Vinje said. "Factor in that we clinched it on senior night, last regular season home game, second game of a doubleheader under the lights at Citizens Field - brilliant.

"It's especially great for those guys that were a part of last season. To have that type of turnaround just re-establishes the fact that these guys are capable of winning."

Vinje did not doubt that coming into the season. He knew he had athletes to work with but how that transitioned onto the field remained to be seen.

The Cardinals wasted no time proving they could stack up with the best in the CLC. Their first win in league play was against last year's champion, St. Cloud Tech. They followed that up with a 3-2 overtime win over 2008 runner-up, Brainerd.

That set the tone for a season that has produced the second CLC title in the program's history. The only other one came in 2005 when, incidentally, Vinje and assistant coaches Bryce Brickweg and Kyle Beilke were all captains.

"It's tough to know if you're capable of winning a league because everything is relative," Vinje said. "I knew the players I was going to get to work with were talented.

"It was just a matter of whether or not we were going to be willing to buy into a team philosophy and playing style. I have been so blessed this year to have the players and coaches in this Alexandria soccer program supporting our philosophy."

That team-first philosophy has been evident in the Cardinals all season. That is especially the case on defense where Alexandria has swarmed opposing offenses on its way to allowing just 15 goals in 16 games. That was a point of emphasis that the team has put into action from the very beginning of the season.

"A big focus at the beginning of the year was defending," Vinje said. "Last year, the team gave up [42 goals]. You can't expect to be competitive if you're giving up over two goals a game. It puts too much pressure on your attack. It's simple - if the other team doesn't score, you don't lose."

The Cardinals used that defense to keep them in the game last Thursday before the offense picked them up in the second half. Thomas Williams got his team going by dribbling through the Apollo defense and finding the back of the net for a 1-0 lead.

Alexandria was not done. Jon Lewis added an insurance goal just 10 minutes later and the Cardinals were well on their way to securing the conference title. Those two goals were plenty for keeper Scott Hennen and a defense that picked up its sixth shutout of the season.

That defense has been the biggest difference from a 4-11-3 team in 2008 and a CLC championship team in 2009. The Cardinals set their sights on the league title coming into the season. They then went out and worked hard to achieve it.

"The first day of practice this season, we sat down and asked ourselves, 'what do we want to do this season?'" Vinje said. "Each guy had the same goal in mind - win the conference championship. These guys are tough. The CLC title is a testament to how hard the guys were willing to work in the preseason and practices."