Cardinals ready to face big, athletic Cooper team that features one of the country's top recruits
Alexandria is one win away from playing at U.S. Bank Stadium, but the Cardinals will have to go through Jaxon Howard and a talented Hawks team from Robbinsdale Cooper to get there.
The Alexandria football team is well prepared for a game like the one the Cardinals are about to take part in on Saturday afternoon in the Class 5A state quarterfinals.
Alexandria’s regular-season schedule prepared this team for talented opponents like Robbinsdale Cooper. The Cardinals’ week-one opponent, Hutchinson, is in the Class 4A state tournament. Moorhead -- the team Alexandria beat in the Section 8-5A semifinals -- was ranked 8th in the Associated Press poll on Oct. 26, a little higher than 10th-ranked Robbinsdale Cooper.
The Cardinals have played plenty of good teams through a 6-5 record. They are embracing an opportunity to play another against the Hawks (8-2) in Osseo at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
“There’s just no mediocre or average teams left,” Alexandria head coach Mike Empting said. “Every team is going to have some dudes that each team has to account for. It’s going to come down to guys making plays down the stretch. It’s going to be fun.”
Robbinsdale Cooper has the most highly-sought after football recruit in Minnesota for the 2023 graduating class. Jaxon Howard plays tight end and defensive end for the Hawks.
Listed at 6-feet, 4-inches and 245 pounds, the junior has more than 50 college offers. He cut the list of schools he’s considering to 12 in Minnesota, Notre Dame, Florida, Michigan, Alabama, North Carolina, Ohio State, USC, Oklahoma, Oregon, Stanford, and Arizona State.
“They don’t always have a tight end in their offensive formation,” Empting said. “I don’t know if I should say this out loud or not, but they haven’t thrown him the ball that much in the games that I’ve seen. He’s one of those big, athletic kids out there. He’s out there at defensive end making a lot of plays. He’s a hard block. He runs down a lot of plays, pressures the quarterback.”
Empting said that Howard stands out a lot on film defensively, but he knows they need to be mindful of his presence every time he is on the field offensively too. The Hawks have plenty of offensive weapons they used on the way to averaging 35.5 points-per game this season.
“They’re kind of a zone-read, bubble, spread-type team very similar to what we run,” Empting said. “I don’t think they run their quarterback as much as Carter (Steffensmeier) runs, but they’ve got a very good running back too. They’re athletic. They got good skill position guys. They got a very nice wide receiver, quarterback who throws a good football. They’re big up front on both sides of the ball, so that’s going to pose challenges for us.”
The Cardinals have their own weapons that the Hawks need to account for too. Steffensmeier threw for almost 250 yards and two touchdowns against Bemidji. He’s also shown a tendency all season in knowing when to use his legs for big gains. Kristen Hoskins is coming off of a 4-touchdown game against the Lumberjacks where he totaled 223 yards receiving and rushing.
“On the offensive side, we just need to do our jobs,” Empting said. “Offensive line up front, we need to get a body on a body and hold those blocks, give (senior running back) Will (Heydt) back there a chance. Give him a crease and he’ll make something happen. Our receivers, we just need to win some one-on-ones on the edge. Carter is going to find them. Carter is throwing the ball really well right now.”
The Cardinals were also opportunistic with takeaways last week as Teagan Pfeffer and Hoskins had interceptions, and Mason Teaser and Jordan Nicholson jumped on fumble recoveries.
“We need to be sound in our assignments,” Empting said. “With their running back, they like to start the play one way. It’s kind of a typical inside zone where they’ll look to hit it in three different spots. If we lose our leverage in any one there, we could get creased and they could hit a big play. On the back side, we need to keep our leverage on those receivers if they want to throw bubble. We need to be solid in our responsibilities in the vertical pass game. We’ll have our best guys out there matching up with their best guys and try to match personnel.”
The Cardinals are one win away from an opportunity to play at U.S. Bank Stadium in the state semifinals if they can find a way to knock off the Hawks. The winner of this game plays the winner of Mahtomedi (8-2) and Rochester Mayo (9-1) on Nov. 19 at 2 p.m.
“When you get a group like this one, they’re such a tight group, especially these seniors,” Empting said. “They work hard. They put the time in in the offseason. They love the game, love one another, it would be pretty cool to get them through this one and get to U.S. Bank and give them that experience.
“It’s attainable. It’s high school football. (Robbinsdale Cooper) is a section champion and a good football team, but I’ve said it numerous times -- it’s about how we play. These guys have earned this.”