Alexandria has another furious comeback, this time for a section championship that sends the Cardinals to state

Down 35-21 with less than three minutes left, the Cardinals score 22 unanswered points to shock Bemidji and secure this program's 11th trip to the state tournament and first since 2016.

Alexandria football coach Mike Empting was asked midway through the season after another close loss to a good opponent if he felt that his team was better than its record indicated.

Empting tends to hold the belief that you are what your record says you are. With this team, he certainly hesitated and had to think.

Players and coaches for Alexandria felt they were better than their 3-5 regular season record, but they had to show that by turning close losses into wins. With new life in the playoffs, fourth-seeded Alexandria (6-5) proved it all the way to a Section 8-5A championship after a 43-35 win at Bemidji (6-4) where the Cardinals rallied from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit.


“I think honestly when we’re down 14 with that much time left, it’s always in your head,” senior defensive back Teagan Pfeffer said when asked if doubt ever crept in for this group. “But this team that we have and the resilience we’ve shown last week (in a 42-39 win at Moorhead) and this whole season, you can never count us out. I did (have some doubts), but I knew deep down that we were going to pull through. It’s amazing. The amount of work that this senior class with our junior class put in, we all bought into the process that Mike tried to instill in us.”

The 3rd-seeded Lumberjacks trailed 21-20 at the half but led 35-21 late into the final quarter after touchdown runs of 62 and 2 yards from senior running back Gemini Ellis in the second half. The final Ellis touchdown came after a play that could have been the backbreaker for Alexandria. On 4th and long, Bemidji punter Barrick Nelson turned a low snap that did not allow him to get the punt off into a 73-yard run up the left sideline. It led to an easy score one play later.

“Our guys just stuck with it,” Empting said. “These guys are gritty, resilient, gutsy. They have my respect.”

Alexandria showed all of that by rallying with less than three minutes left and down by two touchdowns. Senior quarterback Carter Steffensmeier had a long run down to the Bemidji 1-yard line, but he took a hard hit that took him out of the game for one play.

Senior receiver Kristen Hoskins took a direct snap on the next play and ran in a touchdown that made it a 7-point deficit after the Myles Sansted extra point with 2:48 left.

The Cardinals went to the onside kick next. Freshman Daniel Jackson faked the kick to the right before Sansted hit a perfectly-placed ball to the left that took a high bounce. Alexandria jarred the ball loose as players collided, and junior Kelly Johnson jumped on it to give his team the football back.


“It was going to the edge there, and it just came down in my hands,” Johnson said. “We definitely needed it. Everyone on the sideline was telling us on that crew, ‘Go get that onside kick.’ It just ended up being me. We felt confident. We just got rolling right away, and we felt like it was our game. We took off from there.”

Steffensmeier was back in on the offensive possession, and he hit Johnson on a 24-yard pass down to the 3-yard line. Will Heydt scored from 3-yards out, and Hoskins ran in the 2-point conversion to give Alexandria a 36-35 lead with 2:28 left.

Both teams put up more than 400 yards of total offense. The Cardinals’ defense stepped up when Bemidji was forced to pass as Pfeffer intercepted Jack Larson on the 13-yard line. Hoskins added his fourth touchdown as Alexandria scored 22 unanswered points in the final three minutes to secure their 11th trip to the state tournament in program history. It’s the program’s first since 2016.

“We just keep faith,” Pfeffer said. “We trust that the ball will drop our way at some point. We trust our coaches, trust in God and just know that in the end it’s going to come out how we want it. It’s so much fun. We’re always in those games, so we just have to keep faith.”

Bemidji looked like a different team than the one that lost 38-20 to the Cardinals on Sept. 10. Ellis went 53 yards for a rushing touchdown on their very first offensive play of the game. The senior back finished with three touchdowns and almost 290 yards rushing on 23 carries.


Alexandria needed somebody to counter that star power, and Hoskins was there to do it. The future University of Minnesota receiver had two receiving touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns and almost 230 total yards. His interception on defense sealed the win on Bemidji’s final offensive possession with the Lumberjacks still within 8.

“We needed a guy who could come back,” Empting said of having someone to match Ellis’ big night. “Kristen was our guy. He was dynamic and made some amazing plays, but you look at it down the stretch and Carter, the way he threw the ball and found different receivers. Then we had Kristen out there on defense and got an interception when they tried to throw that way. He’s a dynamic player, but it’s a team game and a lot of things had to happen.”

Steffensmeier had almost 250 yards passing. Pfeffer had a big punt return that set up an Alexandria touchdown that gave the Cardinals their first lead.

Sansted was perfect on extra points. The defense created four turnovers as Bryr Homelvig forced a fumble early, and Mason Teaser jumped on a fumbled Bemidji punt. The offensive line continued its season-long improvement, and Heydt ran for two scores and almost 70 yards.

The list goes on and on for an Alexandria team that showed no quit this fall after a 1-4 start.


“We have a tough section,” Empting said. “You make it through this section, it says something about this football team. We have a tough district that we play in too. I feel proud to be the team coming out of this section. I feel like our program should be fighting to be in this game every year. It just feels good to get over the hump here this year and give these guys who have worked so hard a chance. They earned it, and I feel good for them.”

Alexandria will now play the champion out of Section 5, Robbinsdale Cooper (8-2), at 1 p.m. in Osseo on Nov. 13. The winner of that game advances to the semifinals at U.S. Bank Stadium on Nov. 19 at 2 p.m.

“Go win it and play the way we know we can play,” Johnson said of what they want to take from this state experience. “We can beat any team when we play the way we have the ability to.”

Robbinsdale Cooper beat Robbinsdale Armstrong in a 14-13 game on Friday night to win its section title. The Hawks are ranked 7th through the QRF on They hold teams to 18.6 point-per game while scoring 35.5, but this is a confident Alexandria team with players who have proven they aren’t going to back down from big moments.

“I don’t think we’ve had a game where we put all phases together,” Pfeffer said. “Once we play that way, I don’t think there’s a team in the state that can beat us, but it’s getting to that point.”



SCORING - FIRST QUARTER - Bemidji - Gemini Ellis 53-yard run; Tavin Peterson PAT (7-0 Bemidji); Alexandria - Carter Steffensmeier 12-yard pass to Kristen Hoskins; Myles Sansted PAT (7-7); Bemidji - Ethan Biehn 21-yard run; Tavin Peterson PAT (14-7 Bemidji)

SECOND QUARTER - Alexandria - Carter Steffensmeier 37-yard pass to Kristen Hoskins; Myles Sansted PAT (14-14); Alexandria - Will Heydt 2-yard run; Myles Sansted PAT (21-14 Alexandria); Bemidji - Jack Larson 13-yard pass to Gavin Luksik; PAT no good (21-20 Alexandria)

THIRD QUARTER - Bemidji - Gemini Ellis 62-yard run; Jacob Kelly 2-point conversion run (28-21 Bemidji)

FOURTH QUARTER - Bemidji - Gemini Ellis 2-yard run; Tavin Peterson PAT (35-21 Bemidji); Alexandria - Kristen Hoskins 1-yard run; Myles Sansted PAT (35-28 Bemidji); Alexandria - Will Heydt 3-yard run; Kristen Hoskins 2-point conversion run (36-35 Alexandria); Alexandria - Kristen Hoskins 6-yard run; Myles Sansted PAT (43-35 Alexandria)

Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
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