Card football: New cast expects similar results
The faces may change every year but expectations never do for the Alexandria football team.
The Cardinals go into every season with the goal of competing for a conference and section title. They have come close in the last two seasons, finishing in the top three of the Central Lakes Conference and dropping heartbreaking losses in back-to-back section title games. The hope is if they keep knocking on the door, eventually they'll knock it down.
"As long as we have good participation in our off-season programs, have great kids that keep coming through the program, expectations will be high," head coach Mike Empting said nine days before his team opened up the season against Willmar on the road. "I look at this team and ask, are we capable? Can we make a run at a conference championship? I think we can. I think we're going to be in every single game we play."
That is the confidence Empting has in his players after going 16-6 over the past two seasons. Many of the guys responsible for that are gone. Now it is on the next group of players to leave their mark on a program that hopes to take things a step further in 2011.
"Every year we're at this point," Empting said. "As we close out one season, and we get together in our off-season meetings as coaches and look at who's graduating, it seems like we always graduate a great group that played such important roles...We come into every season having these questions and every year we have a group of seniors that step up and just continue it on. This year's seniors are doing the same thing."
Plenty of new faces
Captains Jesse Hacker (T), Brock Wood (MLB), Steffan Morical (CB), Charlie Wensman (OLB) and Everett Fandrich (DE) are a big part of that group. They will be asked to lead a team that has to make up for the loss of seven starters on offense and eight on defense.
No position was hit harder than the offensive backfield, where Alexandria lost one of the best one-two punches in the conference in Parker Giroux and Michael Joerger. The duo combined for 30 touchdowns and more than 2,000 yards on the ground last year.
"They're going to be tough to replace right away," Empting said. "They pretty much played there off and on in one capacity or another since their sophomore years. They were not only really good athletes, but they knew our offense really well, too."
The lack of experience returning in the backfield means Alexandria has some catching up to do before the season opener. Empting spent a portion of last Wednesday's practice working with quarterback Logan Serum and his skill position players on their timing on handoffs. That timing is critical for an offense that features so many players in motion before the snap.
The Cardinals are giving a number of backs an opportunity to make an impression. Seniors Gideon Burnham and Aaron Steidl are getting reps with the first offense in camp, while Morical, Wood and Tyler Kelly are also in the mix for carries.
Hacker will be one of the players responsible for blocking for them up front. The senior tackle felt good about that unit's ability to make things easier on whomever gets the bulk of the carries.
"We're going to be pretty great, I'm thinking," Hacker said of those guys up front. "We have all our plays we're getting memorized, getting all the footwork and all the technique down...there's not a doubt in my mind (that this team will be able to run the ball)."
Empting cautions that it might take some time. He believes he has the athletes in place. What they need is more reps at the varsity level.
"I think it's something we're going to have to work on," he said. "Those guys are capable of, if they get a hole, they could be game breakers. They could take it the distance anytime they touch it, but so much goes into our offense."
Confident under center
Serum hopes to ease the burden on those backs by providing a threat in the passing game. He showed some good zip on the ball as he hit receivers in stride on short and intermediate routes during practice last Wednesday.
Serum waited his turn to take over as this team's starting quarterback by watching Colin Erickson and Cole Ellison the last two years. The senior knew his chance was coming this fall, and he worked hard through the summer months to take advantage of it.
"I feel very prepared," Serum said. "I spent a lot of time in the off-season working on plays, passing routes, just doing what I could to prepare for this upcoming season...I'm very confident because I know the guys in front of me on the offensive line, I can trust them to block for me, and all my receivers, they can catch the ball and make plays. I have a lot of trust in them, too."
He will have a couple of big targets to throw to on the outside. At almost 6'4," seniors Erich Murphy and Darian Bowman both fit the mold of guys who have the measurables to go up and get the ball. Senior Ben Ferrell also figures to get plenty of touches after being sidelined as a junior because of a shoulder injury.
Changes on defense
On the other side of the ball, Alexandria is looking to shore up a defense that struggled to contain the pass at times last year. Morical has moved from linebacker to cornerback in an attempt to help the secondary.
"I think we're going to do good," he said of that group. "[Jordan] Domine's coming back as a player who did a great job last year...I'm hoping to bring a lot of physicality to the corners out there. Coach [Kevin] Engebretson has been doing a good job with us, making sure we don't make the same mistakes as last year. We're learning from those mistakes."
The biggest changes will come up front, where Alexandria has to replace almost everyone from the defensive line. Fandrich is one of the lone returning players from that group. He knows how important it is for them to leave their mark on the game.
"Defensive line-wise, we set the tone," he said. "We're physical, we're getting pretty strong. The game has to rely on us most of the time. We got to keep our backers clean."
Wood and Wensman offer plenty of experience among those linebackers. Both saw a lot of action last year and are looking to take on an even bigger role in their senior seasons.
"I'm not too worried," Wood said of leading that unit. "Last year I played middle linebacker, too. Our defense, we have a lot of guys coming on, Cody Brandt is coming up in the middle, and we got Charlie coming back on the outside, a couple of safeties and a couple of corners, we're looking pretty strong on D."
The way their season has come to an end in the last two years has the Cardinals hungry to get back on the field.
They know a thing or two about heartbreaking losses. Alexandria fell 20-18 to Sartell-St. Stephen two years ago before having to relive that in 2010 in a 27-26 overtime loss to Sauk Rapids-Rice.
"It definitely motivates us," Wensman said. "Last year, you get to the section finals, a one-point loss, you just want to get back at them."
From top to bottom, this team believes it has a chance to earn that shot.
"We should be right back in the section finals again," Empting said. "Not to take anything away from our competition. We play in a great conference, a tough section, great opponents and great coaches, but I have confidence in our kids.
"I think it's not just an expectation I have, but it's an expectation that all our coaches have. I think the kids believe in it, and I think as a football community here, we all believe that."
Read the complete interview with head coach Mike Empting on Eric Morken's blog, More with Morken, at www.echopress.com.