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Football: Alexandria heads to Bemidji looking to take another step forward

Two programs that played for the Section 8-5A championship last season have similar situations this fall as the Cardinals and Lumberjacks go into a week-two clash with the goal of making another jump with young rosters.

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Alexandria junior Brayden Staples celebrates as he runs off the field after a fourth-down stop against Hutchinson on Sept. 2, 2022. Staples had four tackles defensively and added a touchdown catch of three yards during the game against the Tigers.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press
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ALEXANDRIA — Two programs that are in similar situations will try to rebound from opening-week losses when Alexandria plays longtime rival Bemidji on the road this Friday night at 7.

Both teams were in the Section 8-5A championship game a year ago where the Cardinals stormed back from a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter to win 43-35 . Both teams are also replacing many starters from those groups as Bemidji tries to bounce back from a 40-12 loss at Rogers last week, and Alexandria moves on from a 46-21 loss to Hutchinson .

“I think they’ve only got one starter back on the offensive side, and maybe two or three on the defensive side,” Alexandria head coach Mike Empting said of the Lumberjacks. “They’re in the same situation. They’re having to replace a lot of key guys at important positions.”

The Cardinals got three touchdown passes from sophomore Chase Thompson in his first start at quarterback. Two of those went to senior Kelly Johnson, but the damage was done early for Hutchinson as the defending Class 4A state champs led 32-0 before going on to win 46-21.

Alexandria had many players taking their first snaps on varsity last week and fell behind 32-0, but Empting liked the way his guys got better as the game progressed.

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Alexandria sophomore quarterback Chase Thompson stands in to make the throw against the pressure of Hutchinson's Alex Elliott on Sept. 2, 2022. Thompson overcame some early jitters in his varsity debut to throw for three touchdowns, including a 48-yard strike to senior Kelly Johnson in the fourth quarter.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

Sophomore quarterback Chase Thompson threw for 213 yards, three touchdowns and one interception on 19-of-33 passing.

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Senior Kelly Johnson was his favorite target. Johnson caught seven balls for 116 yards and two touchdowns, while Jaxon Schoenrock (5-37), Kadyn Weber (3-38), Walker Hennen (3-19) and Brayden Staples (1-3, TD) helped the Cardinals spread the ball around.

“The beginning wasn’t entirely surprising with a lot of guys getting their first varsity snaps (against Hutchinson),” Empting said. “What impressed me is how we kept our poise. We stayed together, we regrouped, and we were able to pull it together there for really the final three quarters of the game. Defensively, we played a lot better. Offensively, we started moving the ball. Chase really started settling in and coming into his own. We still have to work on running the ball. We only ran for 20 yards, so that stands out, but Chase throwing 19-of-33 and over 200 yards and three touchdowns, that’s pretty good for a sophomore quarterback getting his first action.”

Junior linebacker Jacob Lanoux led the defense with 15 total tackles, while Evan Kludt had 13 and Bryr Homelvig finished with nine.

“He was another one that I thought played really well,” Empting said of Lanoux’s big night. “He was in the right place a lot of times, made a lot of plays. He had 15 tackles at the linebacker spot, and that’s what we’re looking for. He’s finding the football.”

Empting said the play of the special teams stood out when watching back the film from week one aside from an early high snap that went over sophomore punter Boone Branson’s head. Sophomore Daniel Jackson was 3-for-3 on PATs. Jackson consistently kicks the ball through the end zone on kickoffs to put the Cardinals’ defense in a good position early in drives.

“I think that’s one area where the pendulum may swing in our favor against a lot of teams,” Empting said of his special teams. “We’ve got Daniel who is going to set teams up to start from the 20-yard line and have to go 80 yards. That’s hard for a high school football team. Boone punting the ball, he only averaged 22 yards a punt, but most of them were into the wind in the first quarter. I thought he punted the ball well, and our return game on both sides was really good.”

Bemidji has senior running back Ethan Biehn as its lone returning starter on offense. He will likely get a lot of attention from opposing teams early in the season while junior quarterback Peyton Neadeau gets more comfortable leading the Lumberjacks’ offense.

Bemidji showcased a heavy running offense the last time these two programs met in the section title game. Gemini Ellis, who graduated last spring, ran for 287 yards and three touchdowns against the Cardinals in that game.

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Both programs have turned the page from 2021 with a new group of players who are working to improve each week.

“My main message to the guys is we had a lot that we can build on from week one,” Empting said. “We had a lot of things that we need to improve on. We need to take those lessons and apply them this week as we prepare for Bemidji. We’re going to keep improving. We’re a young team and not anywhere near where we’re going to be by the end of the season. We’re going to be better this week than we were last week. We just need to stay true to that and embrace the process.”

ALEXANDRIA AREA FOOTBALL SCHEDULE FOR SEPT. 9

Alexandria (0-1) at Bemidji (0-1), 7 p.m.

Brandon-Evansville (0-1) vs Wheaton-H-N (1-0), 7 p.m.

Parkers Prairie (0-1) vs Breckenridge (0-1), 7 p.m.

Osakis (1-0) vs Hawley (1-0), 7 p.m.

Minnewaska (0-1) vs Pierz (1-0), 7 p.m.

WCA-Ashby (0-1) vs Staples-Motley (0-1), 7 p.m.

Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
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