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State football: Elks live up to the hype in beating Alexandria

Elk River senior running back Nicholas Rice breaks free from Alexandria's Robert Anderson for a 58-yard touchdown run in the first quarter on Saturday night at St. Cloud State University. Rice had three touchdowns at 263 yards rushing in the first half alone in the state quarterfinal game. (Eric Morken | Echo Press) 1 / 4
Alexandria senior running back Micah Christenson looks for an opening against Elk River in the state quarterfinal game at St. Cloud State on Saturday night. (Eric Morken | Echo Press)2 / 4
Alexandria assistant coach Tyson Swaggert talks to the offense during the first half on Saturday at SCSU. (Eric Morken | Echo Press)3 / 4
Alexandria senior quarterback Jaran Roste releases a throw during the first half on Saturday. (Eric Morken | Echo Press)4 / 4

The Alexandria football team saw first hand on Saturday what all the fuss was about with top-ranked Elk River.

The Elks (11-0) came into the game averaging 455 rushing yards per contest. They had 370 at the half as Elk River grabbed a 39-8 advantage and never wavered in a 60-36 win in the Class 5A quarterfinals at St. Cloud State University.

“It’s just not the way we wanted to end the season, but we’re thankful for the opportunity we had,” Alexandria senior quarterback Jaran Roste said. “The brotherhood we created this year is something special, and it’s something we’ll be able to look back at. Twenty years from now, we’ll be able to come back to Alexandria and see that banner we hung in the gym as section champions. No one can take that away from us.”

Roste called the Elks as good as advertised both offensively and defensively. Elk River’s Nicholas Rice averaged 13-yards per carry coming into the game, and he was at it again on Saturday.

The senior speedster had 263 yards by the half, including touchdown runs of 58, 35 and 3 yards. He finished with more than 270 yards after limited carries in the second half behind an offensive line that drew the praise of Alexandria head coach Mike Empting.

“Their line,” Empting said of what makes Rice so effective. “He’s a nice back, and he gets through there. I don’t think our guys had a problem decoding where the ball was going, but that was that little trap they were running in the first half where he rolled up all his yards. Their line is so fast and for us to try to execute and stop that play, we were just a tick late and he doesn’t need much space to get through.”

Rice’s first score was a 58-yarder that came on a 3rd-and-9 up the left sideline. Alexandria came right back after a fumble recovery led to a 43-yard catch and run from junior Cody Faber for a touchdown. Micah Christenson added the 2-point conversion, and it was 8-7 Alexandria.

The Elks took control from there. Rice quickly answered with a 35-yard score and the 2-point conversion for a15-8 lead.

Turnovers haunted the Cardinals after that. They gave the ball away four times, two of which led to Elk River touchdowns in the first half and another that made it 46-8 in the third quarter after quarterback Blake Hills finished off an 80-yard drive with a 2-yard run.

The Elks not only scored off turnovers. They also kept Alexandria from scoring, with two interceptions being near the goal line.

“Those are drive killers that you just can’t have when you play a team like Elk River,” Roste said. “They execute so well offensively and rarely turn the ball over. I think they had two tonight. That’s probably their high all season. We knew we had to play mistake-free football, and we just didn’t play that tonight.”

The Cardinals tried to claw their way back with a 28-point fourth quarter. Roste ran a touchdown in from 13 yards out and connected with junior tight end Bryce Ludwig on a one-handed grab for a 28-yard score. It was 46-24 at that point, but Hills ran for his third score of the day on a 1-yard plunge on Elk Rivers’ next possession.

The Cardinals answered again. Faber added to his day with a 34-yard touchdown pass to John Urman after taking the pitch from Roste late in the game. The Elks simply couldn’t be slowed offensively as junior Sherrod Kpahn finished off the win with a 45-yard touchdown run.

“The hardest thing about their offense is just their scheme,” Alexandria senior defensive back Preston Buechler said. “They like to give it a lot of fakes, and before you know it they’re right on  top of you and you still don’t know who has the ball yet. It makes it really hard to figure out.”

The Elks run the ball all game out of a “Tight-T” formation with three guys in the backfield behind Hills at quarterback. Any of the backs that don’t get the ball on the handoff carry their fakes out through the end of each play. Empting said they execute the offense as effectively as any team he has seen.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Buechler said. “You can watch them on film and think we got this all figured out. Every single back is going to get tackled on every play and it’s not going to be a problem. You play it in practice, but it’s never as up-to-speed as it is in the game.”

Empting said he was proud of the way his players battled through the final play and called this season a huge step for the program. The Cardinals finished 9-2 and with their first state tournament appearance since 2002.

“It’s tough to get to the state tournament,” Empting said. “We play in a tough section, great competition. This group of seniors did a great job of leading us and getting us this far. We just ran into a really good football team offensively.”

It wasn’t the ending they wanted, but a state tournament appearance and the bond the players formed this season is exactly how they would have drawn it up at the start of the year.

“I’m just proud of how much of a family we were this season,” Buechler said. “We came together and were tight-knit. I’m just going to miss all the guys and going out there and getting to practice and play with them every day...every senior class wants to try to leave the program better than they found it. Hopefully we did that this year.”

ALEXANDRIA     8 0 0 28 - 36

ELK RIVER        15 24 7 14 - 60   

SCORING - FIRST QUARTER - Elk River - Rice 58-yard run; Austin Solors PAT; Alexandria - Roste 43-yard pass to Faber; Micah Christenson 2-point conversion run; Elk River - Rice 35-yard run; Rice 2-point conversion run

SECOND QUARTER - Elk River - Blake Hills 12-yard run; Rice 2-point conversion; Elk River - Rice 3-yard run; Sam Gibas 2-point conversion; Elk River - Gibas 3-yard run; Hills 2-point conversion pass to Gibas

THIRD QUARTER - Elk River - Hills 2-yard run; Solors PAT

FOURTH QUARTER - Alexandria - Roste 13-yard run; Roste 2-point conversion pass to Ludwig; Alexandria - Roste 28-yard pass to Ludwig; Roste 2-point conversion pass to Ludwig; Elk River - Hills 1-yard run; Solors PAT; Alexandria - Faber 34-yard pass to Urman; conversion failed; Elk River - Sherrod Kpahn 45-yard run; Solors PAT; Alexandria - Christenson 4-yard run; Failed conversion

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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