Crazy. Unforgettable. Electric. Any or all of those words would be good descriptions for the football game that took place in Elk River between the Elks and Alexandria on Friday night.
It was a game that featured just one punt for either team. There were three turnovers, all of which led to touchdowns for the opposing offense on the ensuing drive.
In the end, Elk River recovered from a 28-6 second-quarter deficit to win 57-56 on a 1-yard touchdown run by Logan Bunker with less than a second left. Senior kicker Rylen Keoraj hit the game-winning extra point before a series of laterals on the ensuing kickoff return for the Cardinals did not mount a threat.
“It’s tough because you look at our losses, we’ve taken some of the best teams in the state in our class right to the brink,” Alexandria head coach Mike Empting said of a Cardinals team that is now 2-5 with those five losses coming to programs with a combined 26-9 record. “It just would be nice to get over the hump, but we have a lot to build on. I’m a little bit torn because we are very, very proud of the way the kids played. We accomplished a lot. Elk River is a very good football team. I’m so proud of how our kids played for each other out there. You’re encouraged by what happened, but heartbroken by what happened at the same time.”
Elk River took its first lead of the game at 50-42 in the fourth quarter, but that momentum lasted just a few seconds. Alexandria senior receiver Kristen Hoskins had a 50-yard touchdown catch on a beautifully-placed ball by Carter Steffensmeier (15-of-24 passing, 222 yards, 4 TD, INT) on the first offensive play after Elk River took that lead. It made it 50-48 after a missed 2-point conversion.
On the Elks’ next offensive possession, Alexandria finally forced the only punt in the game. Senior lineman Clayton Birdsall made it happen with a sack on third and long.
“It was a huge play by Clayton,” Empting said. “He came in and gave us exactly the lift we needed.”
The Elk River punt went just 4 yards as it sailed quickly out of bounds. Alexandria took over on the Elks’ 45-yard line with 4:31 left and down by two.
Hoskins had two catches on that final drive, including a 6-yard touchdown that was his fifth touchdown of the night. His 2-point conversion run made it 56-50 Alexandria, but with 1:57 left.
“We just had to go out there and go again. That was the message,” Empting said. “One more time. We need to get one more stop. There was a lot going through my mind as we were driving the football down. Do we run the ball once we got into field goal range? Let the clock wind down. But they got two timeouts left and probably wouldn’t let that happen. Our offense was rolling. We just had to score the points and let the cards fall where they may after that. Had to try to go out there and get off the field defensively too.”
Elk River had 492 yards of total offense, and the Elks had one last drive in them that started from their own 37-yard line.
Dylan Rogers broke off a long run to the Alexandria 31. Then on a 3rd-and-11, quarterback Cade Osterman had an 8-yard run that was aided by a defensive holding penalty that gave the Elks a first down. Elk River chipped away all the way down inside the 2-yard line before taking their last timeout and setting up the final touchdown.
“I feel emotionally spent at the moment right now,” Empting said. “I felt like after watching them (on video) that our offense was going to pose a lot of problems for them, and they did. Kristen obviously had a remarkable game. We had some moments defensively too. They’re a very, very difficult team to defend, but our guys played their hearts out.”
Hoskins impacted an opposing game plan as much as any player can. He scored five total touchdowns -- four on passing plays from Steffensmeier of 30, 41, 50 and 6 yards. He finished with 11 catches for 194 yards.
Hoskins took a lateral from a teammate on the game’s opening kickoff and almost returned it for a touchdown before stepping out of bounds near the Elk River 40. The Elks would not kick it deep toward Hoskins almost the entire rest of the game, ultimately settling for just giving Alexandria great field position with short onside or squib kicks.
One time in the third quarter, that changed. After a short kick out of bounds drew a penalty and forced a re-kick, the Elks decided to finally kick it deep. Hoskins caught it cleanly and returned it 86 yards for a touchdown that made it 42-27 after the Myles Sansted PAT.
“They didn’t want to have anything to do with him,” Empting said of Hoskins. “A lot of what they put together defensively was around where Kristen was going to be and how they’re going to plan to stop him. It obviously affected their kicking game too. That’s what he brings. That’s a dimension of our offense that we got that teams have to account for. That makes us that much more dangerous.”
On the ensuing kickoff after Hoskins' return, Elks’ senior Dylan Rogers had an 85-yard kick return for a touchdown. Rogers, at 5-feet, 6-inches and nearly 170 pounds, finished with three total touchdowns and nearly 260 yards rushing as well.
“He’s running behind a very good line,” Empting said. “That’s a big part of it, but he’s patient back there. He bumps along the back of that offensive line and waits for that hole to open up and gets through. He cracked off a few long runs, which is kind of their MO. For the most part, we were able to make them put it down and snap it again. We knew they were going to get some big ones.”
The Cardinals led 35-21 at halftime after a 41-yard touchdown catch by Hoskins from Steffensmeier with just seconds left in the half. Hoskins’ 30-yard catch and run for a touchdown earlier in the second quarter made it 21-6 Alexandria after Sansted’s PAT.
Elk River had fumbles recovered by Alexandria on back-to-back offensive plays in the first half. The second led to a drive that finished with Steffensmeier punching one in from a yard out for a 28-6 lead. That was the biggest lead of the night for either team.
Elk River also used a turnover on an Alexandria interception late in the first half to aid two quick touchdowns on a 43-yard Rogers run and a Shane Rademacher 1-yard run. It was 28-21 at that point and felt like the momentum was all Elks before the long touchdown pass to Hoskins to end the half.
It all left the Cardinals feeling like they are so close to being a team with a much different record than 2-5. Alexandria will go into the regular season against St. Cloud Tech (0-7) trying to put this loss behind them and build momentum for a Section 8-5A Tournament where Empting said he absolutely believes the Cardinals can compete with anyone.
ELK RIVER 57, ALEXANDRIA 56
SCORING - FIRST QUARTER - Alexandria - Carter Steffensmeier 3-yard run; Myles Sansted PAT (7-0); Elk River - Cade Osterman 12-yard run: Conversion no good (7-6)
SECOND QUARTER - Alexandria - Andrew Flaten 4-yard run; Myles Sansted PAT (14-6 Alexandria); Alexandria - Kristen Hoskins 30-yard reception from Carter Steffensmeier; Myles Sansted PAT (21-6); Alexandria - Carter Steffensmeier 1-yard run; Myles Sansted PAT (28-6 Alexandria); Elk River - Dylan Rogers 43-yard run; Dylan Rogers 2-point conversion run (28-14 Alexandria); Elk River - Shane Rademacher 1-yard run; Rylen Keoraj PAT (28-21 Alexandria); Alexandria - Kristen Hoskins 41-yard reception from Carter Steffensmeier; Myles Sansted PAT (35-21 Alexandria)
THIRD QUARTER- Elk River - Shane Rademacher 1-yard run; Missed PAT (35-27 Alexandria); Alexandria - Kristen Hoskins 86-yard kick return; Myles Sansted PAT (42-27 Alexandria); Elk River - Dylan Rogers 91-yard kick return; Matt Beaudry 2-point conversion (42-35); Elk River - 5-yard run by Jack Sumstad; Rylen Keoraj PAT (42-42)
FOURTH QUARTER - Elk River - Dylan Rogers 10-yard run; Cade Osterman 2-point conversion pass to Caleb Sandstrom (50-42 Elk river); Alexandria - Kristen Hoskins 50-yard reception from Carter Steffensmeier; PAT no good (50-48 Elk River); Alexandria - Kristen Hoskins 6-yard reception from Carter Steffensmeier; Hoskins 2-point conversion run (56-50 Alexandria); Elk River - Logan Bunker 1-yard touchdown run; Rylen Keoraj PAT (57-56)