Fall sports coaches across the state have preached to their athletes to savor each game this year because the chance to compete could end any day during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That message became a little bit more real on Tuesday. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Nov. 17 said he plans to announce new guidelines on Wednesday for what is likely to be a pause on youth and high school league sports. The guidelines, which are expected to include updates for both the fall and winter seasons, are part of decisions that are aimed at slowing what has been the rapid spread of the coronavirus in Minnesota.
If Tuesday’s Section 8-5A playoff game for Alexandria is the final game of the season, the Cardinals made it count by posting a 42-0 shutout of St. Cloud Apollo.
“It feels absolutely incredible,” Alexandria linebacker Aaron Jost said. “I didn’t really know how the season would go. We didn’t know if we’d have four games or six games or whatnot. Just coming here and at least having this one playoff game and getting the win felt really good.”
It was the second consecutive game against the Eagles (0-5), who came into the tournament as the fifth seed. Alexandria (4-3) was seeded fourth after dismantling Apollo 50-0 on Nov. 11. It took a while to get going for the Cardinals in the rematch, but a 21-point third quarter blew the game open.
“I’m really proud of the way the guys stayed resilient and stuck with it,” head coach Mike Empting said. “As the game went along, we picked up some energy. It’s just tough to come back from a game on Wednesday against the same opponent and winning the way we did and all the other things going on too.”
Jost had a big hand in the win after his first-quarter interception return for a touchdown. On 4th-and-7, the senior captain read a pass perfectly and stepped in front of it to return it nearly 70 yards for the first defensive touchdown of his career.
“I had the third receiver in and I watched the ball come, and I broke on it,” Jost said. “Then it was, ‘Well, I’m going to have to run to the end zone.’ I got it there, and it felt great.”
It was one of four turnovers that the Alexandria defense created and the first of two important interceptions of the first half.
The Cardinals got a touchdown run of 6 yards from junior Will Heydt with 53 seconds left in the second quarter. Then on defense, Heydt made a diving interception on Apollo’s ensuing possession. It led to a quick Aaron Stotesbery to Kelly Johnson touchdown pass of 18 yards as the Cardinals took a 21-0 lead into the break.
“It was honestly kind of a bad coverage by me, but I got back to the ball,” Heydt said. “I just saw it out of his hand. It was a little bit behind, so I just jumped up and grabbed it.”
Heydt has been big down the stretch of this season for Alexandria on both sides of the ball. He was a fixture on defense all year, but he has also stepped right in for Cardinals’ all-time leading rusher Nolan Morical at running back.
Morical has played through injuries this year that has limited his carries in a few games. He still often makes his presence felt like he did on Tuesday with touchdown runs of 13 and 19 yards. Heydt shared the carries with Morical again against Apollo, and his emergence made for a solid one-two punch out of the backfield over the last month.
“Nolan is a big spot to fill. He’s an amazing player,” Heydt said. “It’s definitely hard, but our line is just pushing the gaps wide open. I just run hard and run fast. Try to get as much as I can for my team.”
Stotesbery, a senior, also stepped up the last couple games with starting quarterback Carter Steffensmeier out with an injury. Stotesbery had two touchdown throws against the Eagles. His last touchdown came on a short pass to Kristen Hoskins as Hoskins outran the defense for a 50-yard score on Alexandria’s first drive of the second half.
It was plenty of offense for a Cardinals’ defense that has grown over the last few games. Alexandria posted back-to-back shutouts over Apollo after holding Bemidji (4-2) to 27 points in a loss on Nov. 6.
“I thought we played really well there too against a really good team,” Empting said. “We have quite a few young guys playing in important positions on the defensive side, and those guys just needed to get some experience. I’m proud of them.”
That pride in his players was the resounding message Empting had after Tuesday as teams across the state wait to see if they will play again this fall season.
“Being an athlete, you sacrifice anyway, but this year in particular, a lot of them probably sacrificed social time because they didn’t want to take the chance of getting exposed to something and bringing it back to the team,” Empting said. “For a lot of them, it’s probably been school, football, home, school, football, home. I’m really proud of this team and these guys. So far, we’ve had our challenges with the virus, but we’ve managed to keep it at bay.”
If the fall season is allowed to continue at any point, Alexandria would head to Moorhead to face the top-seeded and undefeated Spuds (6-0). Moorhead won a 42-0 game against the Cardinals on Oct. 16.
“We just got to play our hearts out,” Heydt said of facing Moorhead again. “We have to play hard, learn from film and from our last game. Just play our hearts out.”
If that opportunity does not come, the Cardinals will take with them memories already made from a season that has been unforgettable from the get-go.
“You can be mad if it gets canceled or whatnot, but if you think about it, six months ago we weren’t going to have a season,” Jost said. “Being able to have this at least has been absolutely incredible. We really came together, and I knew it was going to be a good year. It’s been awesome. It truly has.”
ALEXANDRIA 42, ST. CLOUD APOLLO 0
SCORING - FIRST QUARTER - Alexandria - Aaron Jost 70-yard interception return; Myles Sansted PAT
SECOND QUARTER - Alexandria - Will Heydt 6-yard run; Sansted PAT; Alexandria - Aaron Stotesbery 18-yard pass to Kelly Johnson; Sansted PAT
THIRD QUARTER - Alexandria - Stotesbery 50-yard pass to Kristen Hoskins; Sansted PAT; Alexandria - Nolan Morical 13-yard run; Sansted PAT; Alexandria - Morical 19-yard run; Sansted PAT
FOURTH QUARTER - No scoring