The Alexandria football program has sent athletes to the Minnesota Vikings 7-on-7 Tournament for three years now and have seen a lot of success.
The Cardinals won the whole tournament in 2016, a prelude to a season that saw them go to the state tournament. They performed well again last year ahead of going to the section title game during the high school season.
Alexandria now hopes this year's result is another indicator of their talent level after taking second at the Vikings 7-on-7 Tournament this past weekend.
"I thought the 14 guys we had went down there and really competed hard," Cardinals' offensive coordinator Russ Hinrichs said. "They really bought in to what we were doing and why we were going, and they took to the challenge. It's the best 7-on-7 tournament in the state, I think, and we got better as the day went on."
The tournament is designed for skill position players to showcase themselves. The defense features three linebackers and four defensive backs, while the offense has a quarterback, a center to snap the ball and five wide receivers. There are no linemen, which means no pass rush. A quarterback has four seconds to get the ball out before it's called a sack.
Alexandria beat teams from Maple Grove, Tartan and Prior Lake to go to the championship. That's where the Cardinals met Rochester Century, which won a 35-31 contest. It's nice for any team to experience success together, but this is a group that might gain a little more from the runner-up finish due to how many underclassmen were featured.
"We're young," Hinrichs said. "We got a lot of players to replace on both sides of the football. We have a junior quarterback, probably two junior corners for sure. Some junior linebackers. We even have a sophomore in there with Nolan Morical getting a lot of reps. The seniors we have are a small group. They're going to contribute and do some great things, but we're going to have a lot of juniors, so to come away yesterday with that confidence was pretty cool."
The tournament took place at the Minnesota Vikings new practice facilities in Eagan. The games were played on the outdoor field at TCO Stadium, while players also got a look at the indoor field and facilities that will be ready to go for Vikings training camp later this summer.
"This group of high schoolers were the first high schoolers to really ever use that facility," Hinrichs said. "That was kind of special. It's well organized, real officials there. It's a great environment. It's been a positive experience the last three years."
The Cardinals go into an event like this looking to accomplish a few things. First, it's experiencing a high level of competition against other programs.
Offensively, coaches want to see if the kids understand their system enough to run it at a high level at full speed. Do they know their routes, signals, etc.? Defensively, they play predominantly man coverage to see how well kids can perform against the guy in front of them.
"We really believe the more you can practice man-to-man coverage, the more you can practice your ball skills and reacting to the ball, the better off you're going to be," Hinrichs said. "Defensively, it's such a valuable experience going against another player and that level of competition."
Hinrichs liked the way Alexandria's defense stepped up throughout the tournament. Offensively, coaches who were down there—Hinrichs, quarterbacks coach/passing-game coordinator Zach Witt and secondary coach Kevin Engebretson—got to see soon-to-be junior Matthew Carlsen work with the offense at quarterback for the first time this offseason.
Coaches are only allowed a limited amount of contacts with their players during the summer, according to Minnesota State High School League rules. Carlsen was busy with baseball and Alexandria's run to the state tournament when the football team was leading up to a team camp at North Dakota State University. Carlsen took all the reps at quarterback in Eagan.
"This was a really important day for him to get his feet wet," Hinrichs said. "We're looking for him to be our starter in the fall and gain some pretty valuable experience. He really had a great day. Josh Wegner too, he was gone for baseball, and he had a big day. So did guys like Cody Branson, (Taylor) Jendro. It was really an all-around very positive experience for all of us."
The Cardinals took 14 players to the tournament. Carlsen, Wegner, Branson, Jendro and Morical were joined by Matthew Zick, Trappier Botz, Dylan Mesita, Jameson Molesworth, Derrek Piepho, Kade Blankenship, Blake Hoelscher, Ethan Schroeder and Dan Jantzen.
Hoelscher and Carlsen are a couple of players who gained a lot of experience on the varsity stage as sophomores this past spring in baseball. Carlsen hit .339 on the diamond and Hoelscher followed at .313 as regulars in the lineup.
Hoelscher dealt with a collarbone injury last year, so this was Hinrichs' first time really getting to work with him as a weapon in Alexandria's offense on the football field.
"We're excited about Blake playing football," Hinrichs said. "He sticks out."
This whole group made a positive impression on the coaches at the Vikings Tournament. The Cardinals hope it's something that can carry over onto the field this fall.