The Alexandria and Bemidji football teams looked to be on a collision course to play in the Section 8-5A championship later this season, but the picture is a little less clear after all the dust has settled on the regular season.
The Cardinals lost their second straight game on Wednesday to end the regular season with a 5-3 record. After being ranked in the top 10 and cruising to a 5-1 start, Alexandria lost to a winless Sartell team on Oct. 11 before Sauk Rapids-Rice (2-6) won a 26-21 game on the Storm’s home field on Wednesday. Bemidji (7-1) also lost its first game in the regular-season finale, falling to Moorhead in Bemidji by a 17-6 final.
“It’s high school sports in general. That’s why we play them,” Alexandria head coach Mike Empting said. “High school football a little bit becomes a battle of attrition. We’ve had some guys beat up, and I think a lot of teams are in that boat at this point in the season.”
The Cardinals had players who maybe could have played against the Storm, but coaches decided against it in order to try to get healthy for the playoffs.
Senior quarterback Matthew Carlsen was one of those guys who sat this one out. Empting can’t say too much about player injuries, but he said Carlsen suffered the injury at Sartell before finishing that game against the Sabres.
“We have a few guys who are banged up, and it was our plan to give him this one and try to get healthy to make a playoff run,” Empting said. “We’re hopeful that we’ll have everyone back in uniform and ready to go for our first playoff game.”
Sophomore Carter Steffensmeier started in Carlsen’s absence. Empting felt he did OK given the circumstances of making the big jump from sophomore football to his first varsity start.
Steffensmeier threw his first touchdown pass in the first quarter to give Alexandria a quick 7-0 lead. Nolan Morical caught a ball and went 47 yards, and it looked like the Cardinals might get back to their explosive ways offensively.
Sauk Rapids had other plans as the Storm scored the next three touchdowns. Senior quarterback Kobe Lee accounted for all three of them with a passing score and two short running touchdowns, giving his team a 20-7 lead at the half.
“I think the biggest thing is again we just had too many mistakes,” Empting said. “We turned the ball over and had some untimely penalties that put us behind the sticks offensively. We struggled to stop their run game in the first half.”
The Cardinals did a better job of slowing that down after halftime, but the damage had been done. Morical scored his second touchdown of the night on an 8-yard run to make it a 20-14 deficit. The Storm responded again, this time with an Alex Harren 3-yard touchdown run to make it 26-14 at the end of the third quarter.
The Cardinals had one more punch left in them. Blake Hoelscher returned a punt late in the fourth quarter for a 38 yard touchdown. A Sean Haak PAT cut the deficit to five points, but the Storm recovered an onside kick to finish off the win.
Now the Cardinals will have to wait and see what their seed is in the 8-5A playoffs. Bemidji is still locked into that top spot, but Moorhead’s win over the Lumberjacks has the Spuds (5-3) knocking on the door of the Cardinals for that second spot. Alexandria does hold the first tiebreaker in the QRF through Minnesota-scores.net with its head-to-head win over Moorhead.
“I think it will be close,” Empting said. “We will have to wait and see. With our situation, we were really hoping to get that No. 2 seed and get that first-round bye and get guys healthy.”
The first and second seeds in the six-team section field get a bye in the opening round. Teams seeded third, fourth, fifth and sixth will open the tournament on Oct. 22.
The brackets will be set on Thursday. Regardless of where Alexandria ends up, the Cardinals know they need to get back to playing cleaner football going forward.
“We just have to stop making mistakes,” Empting said. “Both sides of the ball and even special teams. We had some special teams hiccups again tonight, too. You can’t give up blocked punts, and interceptions and fumbles and big plays and then expect to come out on top against very many teams in high school football at all.”
SAUK RAPIDS-RICE 26, ALEXANDRIA 21
SCORING - FIRST QUARTER - Alexandria - Carter Steffensmeier 47-yard pass to Nolan Morical; Sean Haak PAT; Sauk Rapids - Kobe Lee 5-yard pass to Josh Schloe; Two-point conversion no good
SECOND QUARTER - Sauk Rapids - Lee 2-yard run; Two-point conversion no good; Sauk Rapids - Lee 4-yard run; Lee two-point conversion pass to Schloe
THIRD QUARTER - Alexandria - Morical 8-yard run; Haak PAT; Sauk Rapids - Alex Harren 3-yard run; Two-point conversion no good
FOURTH QUARTER - Alexandria - Blake Hoelscher 38-yard punt return; Haak PAT