Alexandria football: One win away
The Alexandria football team celebrated a win this past Saturday that these players and coaches will likely remember for the rest of their lives.
Not only did the Cardinals beat rival Moorhead on the Spuds' home field to advance to the Section 8, Class 5A title game, but they did it in the closing seconds on a 28-yard pass from Michael Empting to Thomas Anderson. That's worth remembering for this team, but the Cardinals are now tasked with forgetting about it for the time being as they shift their focus to top-seeded Brainerd on the Warriors' home field with a state bid on the line.
"We talked to the guys on Monday and got right after it," head coach Mike Empting said. "They had Sunday to kind of celebrate and relish that win. It felt good, but now we have to refocus pretty quickly. The great thing about the playoffs is you have an opportunity to go 1-0 and whatever happened in the regular season is history."
The first time these two teams met this year was on Alexandria's homecoming on Sept. 16. The Warriors (7-2) knocked off the Cardinals (5-4) 50-43 in a game where Empting feels his team didn't play nearly up to its capabilities.
"I had to go back and look very closely at that game," Empting said. "It was game three and a lot of our guys were still getting our feet wet in the system. We were coming off a week one win against an Andover team that was incredibly physical. I look back on that one and think in a lot of ways midway through the season we were still recovering from that week one game because Andover was so physical."
Brainerd's Charlie Geraets took full advantage of that during the regular-season matchup in Alexandria. The Warriors' senior back ran the ball 43 times for 290 yards.
Geraets is the workhorse for this Brainerd offense. In the section semifinals win over Bemidji, he ran 33 times for 156 yards and two scores. A week after facing perhaps the best running back in the section in Moorhead's Otis Weah, the Cardinals face another who is knocking on the door of that.
"He's a different back then Otis," Empting said of Geraets. "Otis was explosive and powerful, lightning fast where you couldn't afford one wrong step. We literally did that twice and they were both long touchdown runs. Charlie is a little more shifty. He's a strong back, but I wouldn't say he's as powerful. He's going to run behind his pads for sure, but Otis was very much a downhill type power runner where he will explode through you. Charlie is going to make moves and try to get around you, but he can carry you for a few yards too."
The Cardinals have proven that they too have a lot of talent in the backfield. After starting the season at receiver, Cody Faber is starting to look very comfortable taking handoffs. He rushed for 142 yards on 24 carries in the win over Moorhead. That's after 323 yards and four touchdowns on the ground in the final two games of the regular season. Quarterback Michael Empting also had 138 yards on the ground in the win over Moorhead to form a one-two punch in Alexandria's read-option game with Faber.
Moving the ball wasn't a problem the first time Alexandria and Brainerd met. The Cardinals racked up 356 yards, but a couple of turnovers hurt them, including an interception returned for a touchdown on the first possession.
"We have to value our possessions," Empting said of the upcoming rematch. "Then in a game like this, especially against a team like Brainerd, a special teams play here or there can make a difference. It was in our Moorhead game recovering an onside kick that set up a score."
Probably the most important factor in Alexandria trying to get a win on Friday centers around not giving up so many big plays defensively, Empting said. That means bottling up Geraets as much as the Cardinals can without losing track of Brainerd's other playmakers.
"Last time we played, we just gave up too many explosive plays," Empting said. "We were just caught in bad positions too often. We have to do a better job of making them earn it all the way down the field."
The Cardinals did a better job of that against Moorhead a second time around. Minus a couple plays - and they were big ones in 84 and 95 yard touchdown runs for Weah - Alexandria was able to keep the Spuds from finding the end zone too often on those big plays last Saturday. That's compared to five touchdowns of 30 yards or longer in Week Eight of the regular season against Moorhead. The Cardinals want to see similar improvement in their second matchup against Brainerd.
Alexandria is playing in its third straight section final. The Cardinals are 1-1 in those previous two and looking for their 11th trip to the state tournament and first back-to-back trips to state since the 2001 and 2002 season. That would mean a lot for a program and group of players who were part of a team that graduated a lot of seniors off of last year's group.
"It's a big deal," Empting said. "It's hard. It's really hard, and I think people don't realize how difficult it is. We play really good teams out here. I think it would be a fine feather in our cap and say something about our program and these seniors. To play a role as juniors last year on a section title team and then kind of carry the flag this year and get back to the state tournament. It's the state tournament and there's a lot of teams that can say they've never been there."
SECTION 8, CLASS 5A CHAMPIONSHIP
WHAT: Alexandria vs. Brainerd
WHEN: Friday, Nov. 3 at 7 p.m.
WHERE: Brainerd High School