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Card football: Willmar is up first for Alexandria

Eric Morken, Echo Press Alexandria head coach Mike Empting went over a play with senior captain Charlie Wensman during practice last Wednesday morning. The Cardinals are ready to put those three weeks of camp to use when they open up in Willmar tonight.

The Alexandria football team is ready to put the grind of a three-week camp behind it as the Cardinals prepare to open up the season on the road against conference rival Willmar tonight.

The two-a-days and the monotony of going against each other day in and day out through camp are finally over. That lead-up to the season makes opening night in football hard to beat for teams all across the state.

"I think part of it is it's the end of such a long preseason process," Alexandria head coach Mike Empting said. "The homecoming game, there is pretty big anticipation going into that, too - the Saturday afternoon game, great turnout and all the alumni coming back. The homecoming game is probably No. 1 and opening night is No. 2."

Alexandria will take the field with plenty of new faces but a group that no doubt remembers the dramatics of last year's season opening win over the visiting Cardinals. Willmar led 21-6 entering the final quarter before Alexandria won 22-21.

The way that comeback ended is hard to forget. Willmar's Grant Schow scooped up the ball inches from his own goal line after a kickoff. He crossed over into the end zone and took a knee - a split-second decision that resulted in a safety with less than three minutes remaining. Those proved to be the winning points and a moment that Willmar likely wants to avenge heading into tonight.

"I think they definitely remember it," Empting said. "I'm sure this week that their coaches are going over, now if this situation happens, this is what you have to do. It's just one of those little things that you probably overlook as a coach.

"I'm sure they felt like they had that game in hand and let one get away. There's enough players from that team that are still there that are going to want to get that taste out of their mouths."

One of those players is junior quarterback Alex Grove. Alexandria struggled to keep Grove in the pocket last year as he used his legs and his arm to lead Willmar on 72 and 89-yard scoring drives in the first half. That was the start of a breakout year for Grove as he went on to earn All-CLC honors as just a sophomore.

Alexandria was able to slow him down in the second half last year. Parker Giroux and Jordan Domine each had interceptions in the game and the Cardinals held Willmar scoreless in the second half. Alexandria hopes to use that as a blueprint heading into tonight.

"I think we learned a lot from that game," Empting said. "Hopefully we will learn from that ahead of time and be more prepared. The biggest thing is he's not going to surprise us this year. He's a good football player, a playmaker and one of those guys that we need to be aware of."

Grove and a Willmar team that went 6-4 in 2010 should pose a good test for the Cardinals right off the bat. Alexandria is replacing a total of 15 starters, meaning there are some unknowns heading into the season opener.

It is a group that Empting feels is ready to leave its mark on the Alexandria program. They will have a chance to prove themselves in an important CLC game right off the bat.

"There are a lot of new faces and we're anxious to see how these individuals will perform," Empting said. "And how we're going to come together as a team. I think there is a lot of potential out there in our guys and now they have a chance to show it. I think there's a lot of excitement."

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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