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Alexandria boys ready to run it back

The Cardinals return a loaded lineup from a state runner-up team knowing nothing will come easy as a program that is going to get every opponent's best shot this winter season.

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Alexandria senior guard Myles Sansted shoots a free throw at the end of practice on Nov. 23, 2021 as his teammates watch to see if he makes or misses, which will determine if they have to run or not. Sansted drained the free throw and is one of the key players back for a Cardinals team that returns a lot of good talent from last year's Class AAA state runner-up program. Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

Alexandria boys basketball players ran through a scrimmage at the end of practice on Nov. 23.

It was three groups going on and off the court with each team having to win possessions in order to stay on. It was played at game speed. Players were getting up and down the court and yelling out instruction to each other.

One would be hard-pressed to really know what guys will see extended varsity minutes because almost all of them looked the part of being varsity ready.

That is the kind of depth the Cardinals have built heading into this winter season. Practices will be as competitive as some game nights, but that’s exactly what coaches want as this program tries to duplicate the memorable season it had last winter that ended in the state title game.

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Alexandria senior guard Peter Sansted gets into the lane for a shot at practice on Nov. 23, 2021. Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

“That’s something we talk about often is just the competitiveness in practice,” head coach Forrest Witt said. “If you can create a culture of competitiveness in practice every single day, that makes the games -- not easy, but easier. You’re used to that speed and that tenacity. We had a great JV team last year. There’s a lot of iron sharpening iron. Everyone is fighting and scratching to make our team better and fighting for minutes.”

Talent returns

It is not often that a team that finishes as the runner-up at the Class AAA state tournament returns four of its five starters.

That’s where Alexandria finds itself with Kristen Hoskins, Erik Hedstrom, Carter Steffensmeier and Wyatt Odland now seniors after helping the Cardinals to a 22-2 overall record.

“I am ecstatic about this year,” Hedstrom said. “Obviously, we had a great season last year, but that season is over. This summer, we talked about it. We have a lot of seniors coming back -- 14, I think. We got after it this summer and had great tournaments. There’s a lot of excitement in the gym. People know we have a lot of talent and can do good things if we come together.”

Colton Roderick, now a guard at Bemidji State University, is a do-everything type of player who will be hard to replace from that starting lineup. Roderick, Kobe Jenson and Brady McCoy were the three seniors for last year’s group. Hedstrom said those guys are missed and can’t be replaced, but the Cardinals certainly have athletes who worked hard to be ready for this opportunity to move into roles for this team.

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Alexandria's Bryce Paffrath pulls down a rebound in front of teammate Myles Sansted during practice on Nov. 23, 2021. Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

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“Last year, we learned that chemistry trumps everything. If you have great team chemistry going into each and every practice with the JV guys and the varsity guys, it’s so big,” senior guard Myles Sansted said. “When you have so many talented players on one team, you’re going to have scorers and it’s going to change from night to night. If you’re having a bad night, but you’re there cheering on your teammates, getting them good looks, that’s important. Everyone on this team knows their role, and if they’re having a good night, we’re going to get them the ball. That’s how we’re going to win games is with chemistry and good teamwork.”

Ready to fill in

In the background of what Alexandria did at the varsity level last year is the fact that the junior varsity team had an undefeated season. There were guys on that team who would have played varsity for many programs.

Witt said he believes the Cardinals have a handful of guys this season who could score in double figures any night. Hoskins (12.4 points per game last year) at point guard and Hedstrom (14.4 PPG) as a forward who can shoot to the three-point line are the top returning scorers. Sansted figures to move seamlessly into an even bigger role after averaging 7.2 points per game off the bench last year while shooting 40.7% from three.

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Alexandria's Chase Thompson puts up a floater in front of the defense of Trevin Hoepner, middle, and Elijah Vanderveer during practice on Nov. 23, 2021. Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

“We lost Colton as that third primary scorer,” Witt said. “There will be some figuring out of sorts there, but that’s something we talk about a lot. Some of that has to play out. We have five, six guys we feel could score in double figures on a given night consistently. Now it’s a matter of when opportunities are presented and who is going to be able to do that.”

Grayson Grove is a 6-foot, 6-inch sophomore forward expected to see good minutes this season. Trevin Hoepner and Jaxon Schoenrock are junior guards who helped that junior varsity team to an undefeated run last winter. Witt said there are a lot of guys who have impressed coaches by what they have done in the past in the program.

“If I’m being completely honest, I’ve never heard of a JV team going undefeated. It’s quite crazy what they did last year, so we got plenty of guys like Grayson Grove, Jaxon Schoenrock, Trevin, Peter (Sansted) -- we got a bunch of guys ready to step into roles,” Myles Sansted said. “We’ve been putting in a lot of work this summer, and we want expectations to be at their highest. Then we have to go out and prove it every single game. Last year, none of that matters. We have to go put a 2022 up on the banner and prove ourselves.”

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Taking every team’s best shot

That’s the message that Witt, Sansted and Hedstrom repeated often from practice on Nov. 23. They know there are good pieces in place with this team, but nothing will be given to them.

“We just have to stay true to ourselves and keep each other accountable in practice,” Hedstrom said. “It’s working hard in practice and knowing we can’t just show up and win. Anyone can be beaten on any given night. Last year, we upset some teams that maybe we weren’t supposed to beat. It’s about sticking together as a team and not getting overconfident, not listening to outside sources, but just listening to our coaches and teammates.”

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Alexandria boys basketball assistant coach Tom Miller, left, talks with head coach Forrest Witt during the Cardinals' practice on Nov. 23, 2021. Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

St. Cloud Tech has a new head coach in former Osseo head coach Don Ferguson. His two sons will also join a Tigers’ program that Witt feels will be one of the top contenders in Section 8AAA, along with the Cardinals and Sauk Rapids-Rice.

Alexandria will get every opposing team’s best shot this winter. That comes with being the defending state runner-up and having so much talent back. But the Cardinals recognize none of that matters if they don’t duplicate the things that made them so successful a year ago.

“For us, it’s understanding that we have a good group but also understanding that it’s not going to be given to you,” Witt said. “You have to go get it again because teams are going to give us their best shot. That’s what happens when you win anything. Teams are going to mark that game on the schedule, and you have to be at your best all the time. That’s a good thing. It’s going to force you to be on the ball every time and develop those habits.”

ALEXANDRIA BOYS BASKETBALL SCHEDULE

Dec. 7 at Detroit Lakes, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 9 vs. Sauk Rapids-Rice, 7:15 p.m.

Dec. 11 vs. Austin at Hopkins High School, 1:45 p.m.

Dec. 14 at Willmar, 7:15 p.m.

Dec. 17 vs. St. Cloud Tech, 7:15 p.m.

Dec. 21 at Rocori, 7:15 p.m.

Dec. 29 vs. Princeton at St. Cloud State University, 7 p.m.

Dec. 30 vs. Robbinsdale Cooper at St. Cloud Apollo High School, 2:30 p.m.

Jan. 7 at St. Cloud Apollo, 7:15 p.m.

Jan. 13 vs. Fergus Falls, 7:15 p.m.

Jan. 15 at Hutchinson, 1 p.m.

Jan. 18 vs. Sartell, 7:15 p.m.

Jan. 21 vs. St. Peter, 7:15 p.m.

Jan. 25 vs. Detroit Lakes, 7:15 p.m.

Jan. 27 at Brainerd, 7:15 p.m.

Jan. 31 at Sauk Rapids-Rice, 7:15 p.m.

Feb. 4 vs. Willmar, 7:15 p.m.

Feb. 5 vs. Marshall, 8:30 p.m.

Feb. 8 at Bemidji, 7:15 p.m.

Feb. 10 at St. Cloud Tech, 7:15 p.m.

Feb. 15 vs. Rocori, 7:15 p.m.

Feb. 18 vs. St. Cloud Apollo, 7:15 p.m.

Feb. 22 at Fergus Falls, 7:15 p.m.

Feb. 24 at Sartell, 7:15 p.m.

March 1 vs. Moorhead, 7:30 p.m.

March 4 vs. Brainerd, 7:15 p.m.

March 8 Section quarterfinals, TBD

Related Topics: BASKETBALL
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