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Football: Alexandria readies for another showdown with Moorhead

Head coach Mike Empting knows this will be a big test on the road for his team at the midway point of the season.

1.DSC_3393.Brayden Staples.JPG
Alexandria junior Brayden Staples celebrates his sack against Sauk Rapids-Rice early in the game on Sept. 16, 2022. Staples and the Cardinals are in Moorhead this Friday night at 7 where the 2-1 Spuds await.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press
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ALEXANDRIA — There is a chance that a special game will break out every time the Alexandria and Moorhead football programs meet, and the Cardinals hope to take a step forward when they make the trip north up I-94 on Friday.

The last time these two teams met, Alexandria won a 42-39 shootout on a hook-and-lateral play to knock off the top-seeded Spuds in the Section 8-5A playoffs on Oct. 30, 2021. It was part of six total touchdowns scored in the final 5 minutes, 16 seconds of that game.

These are different teams with some new players a year later, but there is always intrigue when the two programs meet. There’s a good chance weather could also play a factor in Friday’s game with cold, wind and wet conditions in the forecast as of Wednesday.

“Any time you have your rival on the schedule, you mark that date,” Alexandria head coach Mike Empting said. “Everyone knows when that game is, and this one is no different. It might be a regular season game, but we’ve definitely got history and I think the kids feel that. It’s been a great week of practice, and I think that contributes to the energy during the week.”

Moorhead enters Friday with a 2-1 record having just beaten Bemidji in a 35-27 final on Sept. 16. The Spuds beat St. Cloud Tech (0-4) 48-12 in the opener before a 27-10 loss to Brainerd (2-2) on Sept. 9.

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Moorhead showcased a strong running game in the win at Bemidji behind senior back Ben Hrdlicka. He put together three touchdown runs of 1, 10 and 12 yards. Fellow senior Karson Wendt added two touchdown runs of 2 and 6 yards.

“In the two videos we have, they are two very different stories,” Empting said of the Spuds. “In that Bemidji game, they were very much a run-oriented team. But in their previous game against Brainerd, they were much, much more pass oriented. I think it just depends on what they see in terms of where do they have an advantage? We’re preparing for both.”

Working on the ground game

The Cardinals (1-2) are averaging 26.3 points per game, but much of that production has come in the passing game.

Alexandria has yet to run for more than 60 yards after being held to 25 yards on 21 carries in a 31-17 loss to Sauk Rapids-Rice (3-0) last week. Junior Walker Hennen and senior Isaiah Brown did score rushing touchdowns from the 1-yard line.

Getting that run game going against the Spuds won’t be easy. Moorhead’s defense is allowing 22 points per game, second fewest among the six Section 8-5A programs.

Read more Alexandria Cardinals coverage from the Echo Press

But Empting said it’s important that Alexandria stays committed to the ground game because of the many ways it is important to high school football. Having a balanced attack forces the defense to prepare for both the run and the pass. Without the threat of running the ball, defenses will continue to drop more players back into coverage.

“Then over the course of a game, having to stop the run on a consistent basis takes its toll on a team into the third and fourth quarter,” Empting said. “(The run game) is something we work on every week and have very intentional time toward. We’re moving in the right direction with that. We just need to stick with it.”

Balance catching the ball

Sophomore quarterback Chase Thompson threw for 229 yards on 19-of-32 passing against Sauk Rapids-Rice.

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For the third straight game, senior Kelly Johnson was his favorite target as Johnson caught 7 balls for 75 yards. Five different guys caught passes with Jaxon Schoenrock (5-48), Mason Gorghuber (3-45), Hennen (3-33) and Kadyn Weber (1-28) giving Thompson options in the passing game.

“Chase is doing a good job spreading the football around,” Empting said. “Our wide receivers continue to get better. Kelly Johnson continues every week to demonstrate he’s one of the top receivers, for sure in our league. Jaxon Schoenrock is a really good athlete. Mason Gorghuber keeps coming on, and both Andrew Flaten and Walker Hennen catch the ball really well out of the backfield. We’re spreading the ball around really well, and that’s something we have to continue to do as we continue to work on building our run game.”

Better this week

Week-to-week progress continues to be the message coaches are preaching to these players.

A road game at a section and district rival like Moorhead will give the Cardinals a good idea of exactly where they stand at the midway point of the regular season. Empting is most focused on having his guys ready to play well in what they do. From there, everything else has an opportunity to take care of itself.

“I’d love to continue to see progress,” Empting said. “Even though we lost last Friday, we took some steps forward. It came down to when we needed a play, Sauk Rapids made the play…Are we continuing to grow and get better in the areas we talk about? Fast starts, coming out of the locker room for the second half. Now it’s in those critical situations, making a play. Making a play to get off the field on third down, making a play to finish a drive. I’m just looking for continued growth for our guys. Bounce back from last week, play with confidence.”

ALEXANDRIA AREA FOOTBALL SCHEDULE FOR SEPT. 23

Alexandria (1-2) at Moorhead (2-1), 7 p.m.

Brandon-Evansville (1-2) at CGB (0-3), 7 p.m.

Parkers Prairie (1-2) vs Pelican Rapids (2-1), 7 p.m.

Osakis (3-0) at Browerville (3-0), 7 p.m.

Minnewaska (0-3) at Montevideo (0-3), 7 p.m.

WCA-Ashby (2-1) vs Hawley (1-2), 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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