Looking back on a play for the ages
The Cardinals prepared for a moment just like the one they were presented with needing a touchdown in the final minute at Moorhead last week. They then went out and executed a hook-and-lateral play to perfection. Now another longtime rival awaits in Bemidji for a section title.
It it easy to watch a dramatic trick play like the hook-and-lateral that the Alexandria football team won on in Moorhead during the Section 8-5A semifinals on Saturday and feel that luck has a lot to do with it.
It certainly takes everything going right on a play like the one the Cardinals executed in that 42-39 win, but it happens because of the preparation that leads up to that moment.
“It’s one of those plays that you work on a couple of times, a couple of days a week, but it’s not a focal point,” Alexandria head coach Mike Empting said a little more than 12 hours after his team’s dramatic comeback win over the Spuds sent Alexandria to the section title game. “I’m really proud of our offensive coaches, Russ Hinrichs and Zach Witt, the work that those guys do to have that rolodex of those plays and to have the patience and persistence throughout the season to spend the time in practice to work on those, so that when the opportunity hits in a game, they’re ready. Those are plays we’re going to run once or twice a year in a season. But you got to put the time in. That’s the brilliant part of that coaching piece.”
The hook-and-lateral play that finished with senior Will Heydt scoring on a 48-yard touchdown with less than 30 seconds left was a culmination of a wild finish. Moorhead and Alexandria scored six total touchdowns in the final 5 minutes, 16 seconds.
The Spuds scored on 29-yard touchdown pass with 55 seconds left to take a 39-35 lead. The Cardinals had 72 yards to go with 45 seconds left when their offense took over. It took them just two plays.
Kristen Hoskins, who had a huge 69-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter, caught a pass from senior QB Carter Steffensmeier on the first play of Alexandria’s final possession. Hoskins threw a backwards pass back to Steffensmeier, who then hit Zach Gundberg for 24 yards.
That set up the game-winner. Steffensmeier placed the ball perfectly almost 10 yards down the field to receiver Jaxon Schoenrock. In one quick motion, Schoenrock caught the ball and instantly shoveled it off to Will Heydt, who was sprinting in stride down the left sideline.
Three Moorhead defenders around the play had no chance to catch Heydt.
“Calling it at the right time, it was spot on. Then the brilliant part was the kids and the execution of that play,” Empting said. “It’s the preparation that goes in ahead of time. Sometimes it feels monotonous for the kids and even for the coaches, but it’s knowing the opportunity is going to come. When the opportunity comes, we’ve got to be ready for it.
“The protection holding up. The throw being where it needed to be, the reception, the execution of the lateral and catching the lateral and taking it up the field, there are so many pieces there. We have confidence in it because of what we had into it.”
Alexandria trailed 21-7 at halftime, but the Cardinals never lost sight of what they could do. They had moved the ball in the first half on drives that didn’t end in touchdowns. That needed to change in the third and fourth quarters, and it did.
"If we don’t take care of business on Friday, that win against Moorhead is still going to be what it was, but it’s just going to be a little bit different if we don’t take care of things on Friday."
- Mike Empting, Alexandria head coach
The Cardinals have been in these types of games all season, but none of them had turned out in their favor against the best teams on their schedule. Losses to Moorhead, Brainerd and Elk River dating back to Sept. 24 came by a combined 10 points.
Moorhead was down 35-27 with two minutes left, but a 63-yard touchdown pass, a recovered onside kick, and another 29-yard touchdown pass gave the Spuds the lead. At that point, it would have been human nature for Alexandria players to wonder how this happened again.
“The way they stayed in it. The way they didn’t give up. The way they persisted,” Empting said of what made him the proudest of his team’s effort. “They had a great confidence all week. It wasn’t cocky or arrogant, but they were confident. Part of it was their past experience and part of it was their preparation this week. Part of it was just the experience we had throughout the course of the season playing against those tough opponents and being in those close games. They knew they were going to be there and what they had to do to get over the hill.”
It was as much of an emotional win as a team can have, and the Cardinals were going to enjoy it through Sunday. But on Monday, Empting’s message to his team was going to be the same message that he has shared since the end of the regular season.
“Every week, we’re 0-0 and we have to win the week,” Empting said. “We took care of that last week. Starting (Monday), we’re 0-0 and we have to move on. If we don’t take care of business on Friday, that win against Moorhead is still going to be what it was, but it’s just going to be a little bit different if we don’t take care of things on Friday.”
The Cardinals will travel to Bemidji to take on the third-seeded Lumberjacks at 7 p.m. on Nov. 5 after Bemidji beat second-seeded Sauk Rapids-Rice in a 22-14 game on Saturday.
Alexandria beat the Lumberjacks 38-20 in the second week of the season on Sept. 10. A lot has likely changed for both teams.
It certainly has for the Cardinals. The addition of Heydt at running back for Alexandria has made the Cardinals a different offense the last two weeks.
Heydt injured his knee in the season opener at Hutchinson and did not return on the offensive side of the ball until the playoff opener on Oct. 26. He had four total touchdowns in Moorhead. That’s after three rushing touchdowns against Sartell in the playoff opener.
“Teams are going to have to defend the box and worry about the running game,” Empting said of Heydt’s return. “We’ve got Kristen on the outside. We’ve got Kelly Johnson, Jaxon Schoenrock, Zachary Gundberg. We’ve got Carter who can run the football. Wow.”
The Lumberjacks (6-3) responded well to that loss to Alexandria by winning six of their last seven games. The Cardinals just knocked off one rival. Another awaits with a section championship on the line on Friday.
“We get to go up there, on their turf in their stadium, make the drive on a Friday. It’s going to feel normal, which will be fun,” Empting said. “It’s going to be a good game. There’s no doubt about it.”