After each season, coaches on almost every team will look back and try to see trends. What made them successful? What led to failures?
When Alexandria head football coach Mike Empting dissected the Cardinals’ 3-6 season from last fall, two things stood out.
“I don’t think we were very effective in stopping the run,” Empting said from Alexandria’s first day of practice on Monday. “That’s something when you look at yards-per-rush we gave up, I would like to have us down around that (3-yard) mark, and we were up closer to five. We’re going to struggle defensively if that’s the case.
“On the other side of the ball, we want to rush it for (4-yards-per-carry) or better, and we weren’t in that neighborhood either. Being able to run the ball and stop the run are two things after last season I looked at and said we have to get better in these areas.”
Those are a couple starting points to work on as Alexandria tries to get back on the other side of the .500 mark this fall.
Empting and his five captains this season in Derrek Piepho (RB/DB), Cody Branson (WR/DB), Andrew Revering (WR/DB), Xavier Homelvig (TE/LB) and Matthew Carlsen (QB) spoke to how they are ready to get a new chapter started after that three-win season in 2018.
“Everyone is playing with a chip on their shoulder,” Piepho said. “We had three games to show (for our effort) last year and most of the games were very winnable. This year, it’s just taking advantage of those opportunities and winning the games we know we can.”
Alexandria is in a position where most of its players can look back on lessons learned from 2018 because many of these guys were on the field.
The Cardinals were inexperienced at a lot of spots last year, starting up front along the lines and ranging into the skill position groups. That won’t be the case this fall.
The Cardinals return depth up front and all of their statistical leaders from a skill-position standpoint. Nolan Morical led Alexandria in rushing (139 carries, 714 yards) as a sophomore, and Branson led the receiving group with 443 yards on 30 catches as a junior. Alexandria’s top-five receivers from a year ago were all underclassmen in Branson, Revering, Morical, Kristen Hoskins and Blake Hoelscher.
“It’s definitely nice,” Carlsen said of having those weapons back around him. “We know we have all the same guys. We know it’s going to be the same feel, and we don’t have to introduce any new things. The next two weeks, we can get on the same page and get rolling faster.”
Branson said a couple areas they identified as ways this offense can improve from a year ago when they averaged 17.3 points-per game is by running the ball better and getting into more manageable positions on third down.
A lot of Alexandria’s success running and passing will stem from how well things go up front along the line. Empting sees a group there that is a lot more experienced after getting their feet wet last fall.
He said Alexandria will still be undersized up front against teams like Bemidji, St. Cloud Tech and Moorhead. The key will be trying to utilize their athleticism against programs like that.
“We’re not going to be able to match their size, but we feel like we’re going to be athletic and strong up there,” Empting said. “We’re going to have guys coming back who have experience. Last year, we were really inexperienced on both sides of the line, and they grew as the season went along. They’re back for us this year and hopefully they’re going to take that next step up.”
The Cardinals showed some growth across the board late into last season. After a 2-4 start, Alexandria finished its final two games of the regular season by beating Moorhead 47-22 and losing a heartbreaker to Sauk Rapids-Rice in week seven.
Even in that loss, Alexandria players and coaches could feel the tide turning a little bit. The Cardinals had the Storm, 7-3 last year, beat in that game.
Alexandria was up 21-14 with seven seconds left before Sauk Rapids’ Christian Rodriguez laid out for a full-extension, toe-tapping touchdown on the final play. The Storm converted the two-point conversion to steal that win.
“I felt that once we got further into the season, we were coming together as a team and a unit,” Homelvig said. “We really found spots where everybody fit. Things just ran a lot more smoothly than the games did in the beginning of the year.”
That’s why there is optimism for this group as the Cardinals embark on this fall season. Alexandria is ready to see what 2019 will bring when Buffalo comes to town for the opener on Aug. 30.
“We’re excited,” Empting said. “We’ve been looking forward to this ever since the season ended last year, getting this one underway and kind of putting last season behind us a little bit. It was a good summer. We feel like we’re further along than we have been in the past, and we have so many returning starters. I think the kids are excited, coaches are excited and ready to get this thing going.”