The first official day of practice for high school football teams’ move back to the fall season across Minnesota was cold, windy and a little wet in Alexandria on Sept. 28, but it did not sap any of the energy out of coaches and players.
After so much uncertainty surrounding the last couple months, guys had a jump in their step as they went through drills. The offense and defense went head-to-head to wrap up the day for the Cardinals with plenty of playful trash talking going on between teammates.
“Everyone is pumped to play. We’re all jacked up right now,” senior Elijah Holthaus said. “Honestly, I think everyone here thinks that playing in the fall is so much better than playing in the spring. We’re all pumped, and hopefully we might get a homecoming. I know they’re still trying to figure that out, but we’re all really excited to play.”
Holthaus is one of six captains for this year’s team, along with fellow seniors Aaron Jost, Connor Lay, Carter Moen, Nolan Morical and junior Wyatt Odland. Like everyone with a tie to high school football and volleyball in the state, many of these players were locked into their social media accounts during a special meeting called by the Minnesota State High School League board of directors on Sept. 21. The talking points and eventually the votes that would bring football and volleyball back to the fall in seasons that will run from Oct. 8 and 9 through mid-to-late November were being followed with heavy interest on Twitter.
“It was for sure a little bit emotional,” Jost said. “(Alexandria head coach Mike) Empting told us how hard he and a couple coaches were working to get the season to happen. He told us there’s a pretty high chance. We were all just happy either way. We got to play a little this fall anyways (in practice), but we were very, very happy to hear we got to play games.”
Empting and other coaches around the state worked hard behind the scenes to show those making the decisions with the MSHSL that they could have their seasons in a safe manner during the COVID-19 pandemic. His argument all along was that the best place for kids was under the structure and supervision of coaches in their hometowns instead of traveling all over the state and neighboring regions in search of activities.
“We’ve got a group of seniors who have been working for this season for a long time,” Empting said. “I feel good for the seniors. Feel like we’ve been able to do something for them.”
Focus back on football
Empting and his players were excited to put the focus back on football now with their season opener less than two weeks away on Oct. 9 at 7 p.m. at home against St. Francis.
The Fighting Saints were 4-6 a year ago out of Section 7-5A, and Empting said they are part of what will be a challenging six-game regular season that also includes familiar opponents in Moorhead, Brainerd, Sartell, Bemidji and St. Cloud Apollo.
There will be a lot of new players taking on expanded roles after the graduation of 27 seniors from the 2019 team that finished 5-4 overall. The Cardinals will field an almost entirely-new linebacker and defensive backs unit. There are guys to replace up front on the lines, skill-position players and a new quarterback to lead the offense in junior Carter Steffensmeier.
“We feel like we’ve got some good athletes out on the field, good athletes at the skill positions,” Empting said. “We’ve got really nice size in our lines for the first time in a long time. We’ve had some really good lines and good linemen, but we feel like we’ve got some big dudes up there that can hold their own against some of the bigger opponents we’re going to see in the Bemidjis and Moorhead...We have really good athletes. It might just be a matter of them getting some experience. We’ll have to see how things go, but we got guys who can catch the ball and guys who can run the ball.”
This year as much as any season, guys don’t have much time to get their feet wet. There’s two fewer regular-season games and what the playoffs will look like is still undecided.
“We’re just going to focus on being a family this year,” Lay said. “We’ll work our hardest and do what we’ve been doing. Hopefully we can all come together and play some good ball this year.”
This season will be about plenty of guys getting the chance to showcase themselves in prominent roles for the first time, but Alexandria’s offense will have two very experienced players to lean on at the skill positions.
Running back Nolan Morical was all-district, all-section and the Cardinals’ most-valuable offensive back award winner in 2019 after rushing for 1,514 yards and 20 touchdowns. Receiver Kristen Hoskins was an all-district and all-section selection after catching 74 balls for 1,009 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“They were workhorses for us in our offense last year,” Empting said. “We’ll be able to put some good linemen in front of them, and the other guys just need to get some experience as we go.”
With the postseason still uncertain, Morical said this group will focus on each game as it comes and let those playoff decisions play out however they play out. Like so many players around the state, the Cardinals are just happy to be back playing football again and are eager to see how they stack up against the competition.
“We’ve got a lot of new guys that have to step up,” Morical said. “Some spots need to be replaced, but as a team it looks like we’re getting better every day and every week. If we keep doing that, we should be in a pretty good spot.”