There was a little rust to kick off after a long wait for the regular-season opener for football teams across Minnesota on Friday.
Once Alexandria did that, the Cardinals looked like a force to be reckoned with.
Alexandria dominated the second half against St. Francis on Friday, outscoring the Fighting Saints 30-0 after halftime. It led to a 49-14 win where some history was made with senior running back Nolan Morical becoming the program’s all-time leading rusher.
“When I was younger, I always dreamed of just being a running back on the high school team,” Morical said. “Just to know I put time in the weight room and I’ve been really dedicated to this game, it just feels really good knowing all that hard work has paid off.”
Head coach Mike Empting said the record could not have been broken by a more deserving kid.
“His work ethic is second to none, and then you pair that with the fact that he’s a really good athlete to begin with,” Empting said. “And he’s had some very good lines to run behind. I think he’d be the first one to tell you that.”
Morical has been a starter since his sophomore year. He needed 212 yards to tie Micah Christenson’s career mark of 2,440 yards that he ran for from 2014-2016. Morical finished with 222 yards and four touchdowns on just 19 carries (11.7 yards per carry).
“Huge holes. The linemen did a really good job,” Morical said. “It was really easy for me to make all my reads, so a lot of credit to the linemen. Without them, I can’t do anything. The holes were big, so I just had to hit it hard. They did all the work, and I just had to run through it.”
Empting also lauded the play of an offensive line that is led by starters Gunner Anderson, Neko Glazer, Connor Lay, Noah Capouch and Isaac Kershaw.
“I thought they were really dominant, even in that first half,” Empting said. “I felt like we could run the ball whenever we needed to, and Nolan back there does such a great job of finding the open hole. He’s just so tough. He’s just such a hard tackle, and then he’s got the speed to outrun everybody. You pair that up with what we have on the perimeter with Kristen (Hoskins) being able to catch the ball and make people miss, there’s a lot of weapons out there.”
The Cardinals are talented but inexperienced at a lot of spots due to the loss of so many seniors from last year, but they can lean on Morical and Hoskins at the skill positions. Opponents seldom had an answer for that duo last season, and St. Francis didn’t on Friday.
Hoskins was electric again with touchdown catches of 61, 36 and 48 yards. He caught eight balls overall for 197 yards. The 61-yard touchdown came on a quick pass near the line of scrimmage from Carter Steffensmeier, where Hoskins shed a tackle and then outran the defense down the left sideline for the first score of the game.
Morical said his younger teammates played great, but that he and Hoskins are comfortable being guys the team can lean on while others grow in their roles at this level.
“It’s not just their physical capabilities, but mentally them realizing they’re in that position and being able to handle it,” Empting said of Hoskins and Morical. “They rose to the challenge tonight. It’s pretty cool.”
Steffensmeier showed flashes of what the Alexandria coaches see in him as a first-year starter at quarterback. He threw two interceptions, but he also had three touchdowns on 15-of-26 passing for 264 yards. His final two touchdowns were perfectly-placed balls to Hoskins on deep throws that hit him in stride.
“In the first half, he missed high on a few guys, but this was his first significant action,” Empting said. “He did some really good things. Lots to build on.”
The defense gave up one long touchdown pass on an 81-yard catch and run by St. Francis senior Austin Walvatne. They settled in after that with a lot of new players making an impact.
Alexandria had four turnovers, but the Cardinals also forced four fumbles that they recovered. Junior linebacker Dayton Downing had one of those recoveries and also forced a fumble to help lead the way in his first time seeing significant varsity action.
“It was something new today,” Downing said. “It felt kind of quick right away, but you just get in a groove, figure stuff out and then you just have fun from there. We’ve been working for this for months now, so it felt great to be back on the field.”
Empting told his guys after the game that he was proud of them, not just for how they played on Friday, but for all the work they did in the offseason when they didn’t even know if they would have a season to play.
“I know the work the kids put in coming into this season,” Empting said. “I know how much they had been looking forward to this.”
Tougher games are likely coming on the schedule, starting when Alexandria goes to Moorhead on Oct. 16 for a rematch of last year’s Section 8-5A semifinals when the Spuds won a 56-48 shootout. The Spuds return a talented team led by quarterback Trey Feeney and brothers Brady and Blake Walthall at receiver.
The Spuds dominated Buffalo on Friday in a 56-6 final. Moorhead was always thought to be one of the best teams in the section coming into the year, and Alexandria looked like one itself on Friday in the opener.
“It’s a huge confidence booster,” Morical said. “We lost a lot of seniors, and we have a lot of new guys starting this year for the first time, but I thought they all played great. If we just do this every time, every week and keep getting better and better, we know we’re capable of doing really great things with this team.”
ALEXANDRIA 13 6 23 7 - 49
ST. FRANCIS 0 14 0 0 - 14
TEAM TOTALS - Alexandria - Total yards - 55-490; Passing - 264; Rushing - 226; First downs - 20; Turnovers - 4; Penalties - 6-30; St. Francis - Total yards - 64-244; Passing - 209; Rushing - 35; First downs - 9; Turnovers - 4; Penalties - 6-35
ALEXANDRIA STATS - PASSING - Carter Steffensmeier - 15-26, 264 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT; RUSHING - Nolan Morical - 19-222, 4 TD; James Schwartz - 4-14; Will Heydt - 1-(-10); RECEIVING - Kristen Hoskins - 8-197, 3 TD; Aaron Stotesbery - 4-33; Ibukunoluwa Taiwo - 2-24; Zach Gundberg - 1-10
ALEXANDRIA DEFENSIVE LEADERS - Heydt - 5 solo tackles, 2 assisted, 1 TFL; Zander Homelvig - 4 solo tackles, 1 assisted, 1 TFL; Aaron Jost - 3 solo tackles, 6 assisted; Wyatt Odland - 3 solo tackles, 5 assisted, 1 fumble recovery; Devin Cimbura - 1 fumble recovery; Carter Moen - 1 fumble recover; Dayton Downing - 1 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble