What does it take to change the perception of a team? In some cases, a new coaching staff can reinvigorate the players and reroute them on a path to success. In other instances, it's one breakout season that pushes the players to buy into a system. For the Alexandria football program, all it took was one win over highly-ranked Wayzata in 1993.
The Alexandria football team's identity today is a large group of talented kids that are going to beat teams with skill and strength. They're going to throw the ball around the field and pound the rock with its talented running backs behind a stout offensive line. In recent years, the Cardinals added some finesse to their playbook, and its captivated local audiences.
Rewind 30 years and the Cardinals looked different.
"People saw us as 'Little Alexandria,'" Russ Hinrichs, former player and a current assistant coach said. "We struggled to get guys to come out for football. Back then, you'd be lucky to have the best athletes in the school playing football, and then you'd have them playing both ways. When we went down to play Wayzata, everybody thought we were going to get killed."
Alexandria pulled off a postseason upset to beat the Trojans. The win followed a 4-4 regular season but led to one of the biggest wins in program history.
"We had never really beat a ranked opponent before," former Cardinal Nick Heydt said. "We got to them pretty good, and that was certainly foretelling what was coming the next season. That was coming off of the year before, where I'm not sure if we had won a game. It was a stepping stone for us."
Hinrich's last game was at the end of 1993 in a loss to Elk River. He said that even though the Wayzata win was monumental, the Cardinals were still too undersized to keep winning that year. However, Hinrichs stuck around as a volunteer assistant in '94.
"That Wayzata game gave a lot of those guys hope," Hinrichs said. "Beating Wayzata proved to themselves that if they put the work in, they can do something special. I watched those kids put the time in the weight room. That was the first time kids took lifting seriously. They went from being the team that was going to take a hit to the team that would deliver it."
The Cardinals started the 1994 season 5-0, but waiting in week six was one of their biggest rivals. The Brainerd Warriors traditionally got the better of Alexandria in year's past, and the perfect season was almost cut short.
"Back then, you had to beat two teams," Mike Quist, former assistant coach, said. "Brainerd and Willmar were the games you circled on the calendar. They were both good back then, and you knew exactly what you were going to get each time."
Brainerd jumped out to an early lead before Alexandria responded midway through the first quarter. The Cardinals scored two more touchdowns before Brainerd cut the lead to 19-14. In the fourth quarter, Bill Zacher punched in the game-winning touchdown as Alexandria took sole possession of the Central Lakes Conference with a 26-20 win.
"That was the game where you could tell that this could be something different," Hinrichs said. "We had just beat Willmar the week before, and now we were 6-0. Everybody bought into what we were doing. The other thing that helped was we were very fortunate with injuries."
Alexandria had 40-50 guys go out for the football team and a small group of starters that played on both sides of the ball. Throughout the entire 1994 season, the Cardinals stayed on the right side of the injury bug.
"We couldn't get anybody hurt," Quist said. "It's amazing we got through the year. I had five offensive linemen with one sub. On defense, it was five or six guys to work with. We got pretty beat up by the end of the year, but we were fortunate to have the injury luck that we got."
The Cardinals finished the regular season with a perfect 8-0 record in Class AA, the highest class in Minnesota High School Football at the time. Despite an undefeated regular season, Alexandria struggled to garner the respect from its metro counterparts. The Minnesota AP Top-10 poll had the Cardinals ranked seventh.
"We took that as a sign of disrespect," Hinrichs said. "At some point, we went from not having that high of expectations to feeling disrespected by people that haven't even watched us play. When those kids went out in the (Section 8AA) playoffs, they made it known that they had business to take care of."
Alexandria took down Robbinsdale-Armstrong-Cooper 36-16 before advancing the section title game with a 35-21 win over Elk River. The 8AA rematch between Alexandria and Wayzata took place for a trip to the state tournament. This time, it was in Alexandria.
"They didn't want to come up here and play," Quist said. "They had this ego they carried with them. They had a lot of talent, and they had some Division I-level kids, but they didn't use it that game. Our guys were ready."
Alexandria took Wayzata to the woodshed. The Cardinals advanced to a state quarterfinal matchup against Park of Cottage Grove following the 48-19 win. The Redbirds ran the Trojans out of the building by halftime – taking a 28-point lead into the locker room and never looking back.
A freezing cold take
While the celebration began, the Cardinals knew the road ahead wasn't going to be easy. Alexandria punched its ticket to the dome with a 42-21 win over Park, but Bloomington Jefferson was waiting for them. In the Class AA state semifinal matchup, one moment from a late great Minnesota media personality sticks in each alumni's mind.
"I remember so vividly when Dark Star previewed our game against Bloomington," Heydt said with a laugh. "He said that we were going to go out there and lose by four touchdowns. We were just a team that wasn't going to back down. It was a chalkboard type of thing."
On the bus ride to the Metrodome, Quist looked out the front window through the dark sky. He saw the faded lights of the dome sit in the Minneapolis skyline. His nerves wavered through his body as the anticipation grew. That was until one player spoke up on the bus.
"One of the kids that provided a lot of toughness and confidence to that team was RJ Nodland," Quist said. "He was always a believer, and he got us through those tough patches. As a coach, I'm at the front of the bus. I looked down at the dome, and it scared the crap out of me. I'm thinking to myself, 'What are we doing here?' That's when RJ said, 'There it is, boys. Let's go out and get it.' That was special."
Alexandria and Jefferson played a tight, clean game until the Jaguars roughed the kicker on a Cardinal punt. The play led to the Cardinals scoring the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. After converting the two-point conversion, Alexandria led 22-19.
The fate of the season came down to the defense. With just over a minute left, Ryan Nodland made the biggest play of the season by picking off the Jaguar pass to end the game.
"They weren't used to our Cover-2 defense, and they threw it right to our safety," Quist said. "That was it. We ran out the clock and moved on. It was so surreal."
Waiting for the Cardinals in the championship game was unbeaten Anoka. The Tornadoes were one of the top teams in the state, and with three touchdowns in the final five minutes, they handed Alexandria its first loss of the season.
"They were big and fast, and we just lost to the better team," Heydt said. "When I look back on that season, I think about what we were able to accomplish. Our coaches put us in a position to get the most out of that season, and I think we changed Alex football."
Alexandria football’s lone championship came in 1974 in Class A, but the aftermath of the '94 season was felt for years to come. The Cardinals went back to the state tournament three more times that decade and again shortly after in 2001 and 2002. Hinrichs is still a coach in the program and has seen the steps the Cardinals took to play at a high level consistently.
"Those little kids that went to the Dome and watched that '94 team play grew up wanting to be like them," Hinrichs said. "Those were the same kids that made it to the dome in the early 2000s. It's a snowball effect. Because that '94 team committed itself to being better, they changed Alexandria football forever."
Quist believes that the football team wasn't the only one to benefit from the Wayzata win in '93.
"The whole landscape of sports changed when kids dedicated themselves to the weight room," he said. "It's not just boys, but girls too. They wanted to get better and earn opportunities. I think a lot of those principles from back then are still true now."
Hinrichs is hoping to be a part of another team that makes a Minneapolis trip this fall, but he won't forget the group of guys who set the trend in motion nearly three decades ago.
"I don't look back on that year and think about what could've been for those guys," Hinrichs said. "I look at when that team beat Brainerd, Willmar and Tech to get the top seed in 8AA. I remember beating Wayzata and Elk River and going to the Dome. There are too many great memories from that year to ruin by thinking of a bad one. That team was just special."